Selecting a health care practitioner is an important decision and can be key to ensuring that you receive the best health care. Today, that decision may include choosing from a variety of alternative health providers in addition to more conventional medical providers. Unlike providers of conventional medicine, these alternative providers use approaches to treating disease and maintaining health that may or may not be scientifically tested. Examples of alternative medicine include acupuncture, herbalism, naturopathy, and homeopathy.
The general idea with many of these alternative forms of medicine is that if someone feels better having used a particular treatment, then it works for that person. Skeptics of alternative medicine call this a placebo effect, meaning that a person may feel better, but it may not be due to the treatment at all.
Sometimes, alternative medicine is used in combination with conventional medicine. It is then referred to as complementary or integrative medicine. Whatever the case, if you are considering an alternative form of medicine, it is important to understand how some of these methods work and the types of training and backgrounds you can expect of these practitioners before you make a decision to visit an alternative health provider.
Acupuncture originated more than 4,000 years ago in China and other Asian cultures. Traditional Chinese medicine uses acupuncture to regulate the flow of Qi, (pronounced chee) or life energy. Qi is thought to flow along meridians or channels in the body. Advocates of acupuncture believe that when these channels become blocked, an imbalance occurs that may result in illness and disease. By inserting needles at specific points along these channels, acupuncturists relieve the blockage in the channels and the flow of life energy resumes.
Licensed acupuncturists usually have completed schooling acceptable to the National Certification Commission on Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and have passed the national certification examinations in their state. Acupuncture also may be performed by licensed physicians and chiropractors, but those individuals are regulated by their own professional boards.
Herbal medicine, or herbalism, is an ancient form of health care. Botanical products derived from plants are again being widely used. Herbalism uses classifications for plants according to their activity or properties. For example, some herbs are believed to reduce swelling or control infection, while others may lower blood pressure. Herbal preparations are sold in the form of teas, capsules, extracts, tinctures, ointments, etc. Herbalists prescribe herbal mixtures based on a persons symptoms.
Because they are not marketed as medications, herbal products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as prescription drugs as most over-the-counter medications are, and herbalists are not licensed. However, if an herbalist is growing herbs for other peoples use, or manufacturing a product from raw herbs, state laws and regulations pertaining to the safe production of foods or food supplements may apply to them.
Many herbal products have been scientifically evaluated, with results suggesting that some may be effective for certain people. Others have been found to have no effect. Remember, many herbs contain the same ingredients as medications and should be considered drugs. Also, because they are unregulated, let the buyer beware! Products may be contaminated or the dosage may be inaccurate. Herbs also can interact with medications, leading to serious consequences.
Naturopathy draws on Chinese Medicine, Native American healing practices, and Ayurveda (traditional Indian health practices). According to naturopathic philosophy, health is seen as total physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Naturopathy is considered a holistic approach and is based on a belief that the body can heal itself. Naturopaths believe strongly in prevention versus treating the illness. Naturopathic physicians attend a four-year naturopathic medical school and often use the initials N.D. after their names.
Homeopathic medicine, or homeopathy, is a naturopathic approach based on natures supposed Law of Cure. Homeopathy was introduced by a German scientist in 1796. Homeopaths (persons who practice homeopathic medicine) see illness and disease as having a total effect on the mind and body. They believe that illness does not develop from one body organ, but from a disturbance of the whole person. Thus, homeopathy does not believe in giving specific medicine for different problems, but rather one single remedy for each individual person. There are many training programs in homeopathy. However, homeopathic education programs are not accredited, and homeopaths are not licensed in any state.
Adults who choose any alternative form of medicine should select a provider very carefully. If you already have a health care provider and want to see an alternative practitioner in addition, ask for a recommendation from your regular Medical Doctor (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.). Other suggestions for finding the right alternative practitioner for you include:
- Always ask about their credentials. Where did they do their training? What licenses or certifications do they have?
- Contact a professional organization that represents the type of alternative practitioner you are seeking. They may be able to give you a list of practitioners in your area and may even have taken steps to identify those they consider legitimate.
- Contact state regulatory or licensing boards if they exist in your state.
- Some health insurance companies cover services provided by some of these practitioners, so ask about insurance coverage, charges, and payment options.
- Ask if the practitioner specializes in specific diseases or conditions.
- Ask about side effects and interactions with other medications. If you are taking medications already, always consult a health care provider before using an herbal supplement. Some herbal mixtures interact with medications in ways that may cause other problems.
Elaine Abrams, RN
Certified Health Education Specialist and Public Health Professional
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Clearinghouse (NCCAM), PO Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898; 888-644-6226; nccam.nih.gov
A Guide to Alternative Medicine Websites, www.gemstate.net/susan/linksAMed.htm