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Definition from the National Institutes of Health

People often use “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts: 

  • If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
  • If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”

Most people who use non-mainstream approaches also use conventional health care.

Integrative health care often brings conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. It emphasizes a holistic, patient-focused approach to health care and wellness—often including mental, emotional, functional, spiritual, social, and community aspects—and treating the whole person rather than, for example, one organ system. It aims for well-coordinated care between different providers and institutions. 

NIH: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

CAM Video

Bringing Methods to the Madness: The Evolution of Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine Research at the NIH

Original air date: April 11, 2011

Category: NCCAM Lectures

Description: The Complementary and Integrative Medicine Consult Service Lecture Series Sponsored by NCCAM Provides NIH Clinical Center Staff with Opportunities to Learn more about How the Integration of Various Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments Can Affect Approaches in the Research and Practice for Medicine.

Author: Eric Boyle, PhD. Stetten Postdoctoral Fellow, Office of History, NIH & Jack Killen, MD. Deputy Director, NCCAM, NIH

Runtime: 01:12:39

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