Expert Reviewed by Dr. Sue Kim
Clinical Assistant Professor (Affiliated) of Medicine, Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine
Here are the biggest differences between conventional (Western) medicine and alternative medicine, and when to use each.
Note: we’re using the term “alternative medicine” here, but we want to avoid the pitfall of using these practices instead of Western medicine. What we consider “alternative medicine” is similar to integrative, holistic and complementary medicine. See more about the differences between each in our holistic medicine glossary.
Here at Rupa Health, we believe in the value of both conventional (Western) medicine and alternative medicine, and the importance of integrating the two for a more comprehensive approach to your health.
Conventional Medicine: Generally refers to a licensed Medical Doctor (MD) and allopathic style of medicine.
Alternative Medicine: Includes many different types of practitioners who may or may not be officially recognized as licensed practitioners in the US, including acupuncturists, chiropractors, Ayurvedic practitioners, naturopathic doctors, and more. Alternative medicine practitioners generally practice a more holistic style of medicine.
There are a lot of differing opinions here, and each provider will have their own description of their approach. However, in the most general sense, when you see an alternative medicine practitioner, you’re more likely to receive:
- More holistic look at your health (not just zoning in on one symptom)
- More in-depth questions about lifestyle and background
- More time spent during a visit (60 mins per visit versus 15 min PCP visit)
- More lifestyle modifications (diet, exercise, supplements) as a prescribed solution
- More in-depth lab testing
- Focus on understanding the root-cause “why” you’re experiencing the symptoms --
- Taking social, emotional, mental, and physical, and spiritual dimensions into consideration when doing a health evaluation
- Deeper understanding of the role of nutrition in diseases
With traditional medicine, you’re more likely to receive:
- In-depth focus on specific areas / symptoms (especially when seeing a specialist)
- Less time with the doctor
- Pharmaceuticals as a prescribed solution
- Referrals to other specialists who can help different symptoms you’re dealing with
Research & Scientific Backing
There are far fewer scientific studies done on alternative medicine, partly because it’s difficult to design Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT’s) around a modality of medicine that is holistic, and changes multiple variables at once by definition.
However, the rate of studies around alternative therapies is exploding. The rate of acupuncture studies has seen “exponential growth” and is now more than double the annual growth rate of publications for all of biomedicine overall. The proportion of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) has grown from 7.4% in 1995 to 20.3% in 2014, as well, far exceeding that of biomedicine.
More and more studies are coming out and showing that alternative medicine can be a good solution for things like chronic pain, sleep conditions, etc. This is especially true with the science behind acupuncture, nutrition, and herbal therapy.
It’s important to note that many types of alternative medicine have virtually no Western research or scientific backing. However, providers and patients use these therapies because they see results - even if they can’t definitively answer why.
This is a hotly debated topic between alternative medicine proponents and opponents.
Licensing & Education
As most of us know, Western medicine is highly regulated and has a very strict education and licensing process. Licensure is regulated on a state-by-state basis.
Alternative medicine, however, is the “Wild West” when it comes to licensing and education. Certain types of providers, such as Naturopathic Doctors and acupuncturists, are regulated in many states, meaning providers must get a degree from an accredited institution, complete an internship and pass board exams, and do continuing education in order to maintain their license.
Other practitioners, such as energy healers and ayurvedic practitioners, have no oversight or regulation. It’s incredibly difficult to discover and evaluate practitioners. That’s why we at Rupa Health developed a multi-step vetting process that helps us identify trusted practitioners for you.
Pricing & Insurance
While Western medicine MD’s are pretty much always covered by insurance companies, this is not the case for alternative medicine.
With alternative medicine, you should expect to pay out of pocket.
Rates for alternative medicine can get pricey - can run into the hundreds or even thousands for a few sessions. It’s generally a larger upfront investment for patients. However it tends to pay off in the long run, sometimes preventing the need for expensive drugs or surgeries.
Check out our tips on how to save money with acupuncture.
When should I use traditional medicine?
- When you’re dealing with something urgent or acute (Western medicine should always be the first line of defense)
- If you’re healthy and want to maintain good health
- If you’re dealing with a cut-and-dry diagnosis that can be easily fixed or maintained through Western medicine
- If your health concern is specific to one body part
When should I use alternative medicine?
There are many cases where you might want to see an alternative medicine provider. Some common examples include:
- If you’re dealing with a complex/chronic condition and are looking for complementary care or a second (or third, fourth, fifth) opinion
- If you’ve seen many doctors but have not found the answer or definitive diagnosis
- If your condition doesn’t fit into any Western medicine “diagnosis”
- Would like a holistic approach or specific guidance using herbs, nutrition, and/or nutritional supplements
- If you’re looking for someone knowledgeable about drug/nutrient/herb interactions
- If you’re feeling sick but standard testing reveals nothing remarkable
- If you’ve had recurring infections and want to avoid antibiotics
- If you’re looking for preventative care
References & Further Reading
Trends in Acupuncture Research - NCBI
Research Finds Acupuncture Effective for Chronic Pain - AAFP
Holistic Medicine vs. Western Medicine - Livestrong
What Is Alternative Medicine- WebMD