As we find ourselves tangled up in the midst of a national healthcare storm, more and more people are seeking alternative ways to take care of their health. Although alternative medicine is labeled as the “alternative,” Americans have been turning to alternative approaches for nearly two centuries. Today, 38% of adults use complementary medicine. Americans actually find ourselves returning to a long trusted alternative when traditional medicine has left us wanting more.
In the mid 17th century, homeopathy became a popular alternative to standard medical practices. People sought an alternative to conventional practices, which included blood-letting, skin blistering, vomiting and the administration of calomel, a widely prescribed mercury-based drug compound. Homeopathic practitioners prescribed drugs with the intention of curing disease by producing similar symptoms in the patient (like cures like). Not surprisingly, physicians and alternative practitioners developed a hostile relationship. The established medical community pressed legal authorities to fine, arrest and jail alternative practitioners operating without a license thus keeping them out of the marketplace and damaging their reputations. While alternative practitioners developed “natural healing” techniques allowing the body to heal itself and developed strong doctor-patient relationships, mainstream physicians dismissed their positive results “ a placebo effect.”
The initial enthusiasm for alternative medicine ended by the 1870s, as the germ theory lead to medical advances including the first vaccines. In the early 20th century, US medical schools also underwent aggressive reform and more than half closed their doors. The institutions that remained opened were based on strong scientific foundations and bygone were the days of blood-leading and purging. The general population turned back to traditional medicine and alternative demand declined. Osteopathy, homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic medicine were deemed to be quackery by the traditional medical community and medical schools that offered courses in alternative medicine were forced to drop their courses or shut their doors.
A second wave of popularity for alternative medicine arose at the end of the 19th century. “Drugless healing” became a popular alternative to the rising use of vaccines, drugs and surgery. Chiropractors, osteopaths and naturopaths all promoted themselves as drugless healers and 25% to 33% of Americans received occasional treatment from a drugless healer during the 1920s, typically along with conventional medicine. This second wave ended in the 1940s with the advent of antibiotics and other “wonder drugs.”
By the1960s, the population was turning back towards alternative therapies. The term wellness was coined in the 1950s by Dr. Halbert Dunn as a shift away from treating disease and towards making active choices to keep the whole being well. Patients became more dissatisfied with traditional medicine’s ability to cure chronic conditions and to treat the emotional needs of patients. The counter-culture movement in particular rebelled against establishment and sought alternative practitioners. By the 1970s “holistic” became synonymous with the principles of alternative medicine and treating all parts of the body and soul. In 1992, the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) was established at the National Institute of Health formally recognizing alternative health within the traditional framework and supported by the government. By 1998, OAM was upgraded to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
In our current era, more people are turning to alternative medicine than ever before. But for the first time both sides are embracing the idea that traditional medicine and alternative medicine can complement one another. Distrust and long-held misconceptions remain on both sides but an effort toward integration is clearly underway. Patients are demanding the best for their health and they want it all.
So what does integration look like? I know I feel my best when I get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy well-balanced diet, do pilates or yoga, get a massage or go to acupuncture. I have never taken a pill that has given me a sense of improved well-being. Naturally taking care of my body seems to work best when all is well. However, as a health professional I will get my annual flu shot to reduce the chance that colleagues, patients or myself develop a severe illness. I will also turn to conventional medicine if I become ill. I will take an antibiotic under the care of my own primary care physician if I develop pneumonia or seek the care of a surgeon if I break my leg skiing. There is certainly a place for all health providers and the more we all work together the better health all Americans will enjoy.