Throughout recorded history, people of various cultures have relied on what Western medical practitioners today call alternative medicine. The term alternative medicine covers a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. It generally describes those treatments and health care practices that are outside mainstream Western health care. People use these treatments and therapies in a variety of ways. Alternative therapies used alone are often referred to as alternative; when used in combination with other alternative therapies, or in addition to conventional therapies they are referred to as complementary. Some therapies are far outside the realm of accepted Western medical theory and practice, but some, like chiropractic treatments, are now established in mainstream medicine.
Worldwide, only an estimated ten to thirty percent of human health care is delivered by conventional, biomedically oriented practitioners ("Fields of Practice"). The remaining seventy to ninety percent ranges from self-care according to folk principles, to care given in an organized health care system based on alternative therapies ("Fields of Practice"). Many cultures have folk medicine traditions that include the use of plants and plant products. In ancient cultures, people methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the twentieth century much of the pharmacology of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin: one-quarter of the prescription drugs dispensed by community pharmacies in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material ("Fields of Practice").
Twenty years ago, few physicians would have advised patients to take folic acid to prevent birth defects, vitamin E to promote a healthy heart, or vitamin C to bolster their immune systems. Yet today, doctor and patient alike know of the lifesaving benefits of these vitamins. Twenty years ago, acupuncture, guided imagery, and therapeutic touch were considered outright quackery. Now, however, in clinics and hospitals around the country, non-traditional therapies are gaining wider acceptance as testimonials and studies report success using them to treat such chronic maladies as back pain and arthritis.
The number of people availing themselves of these alternative therapies is staggering. In 1991 about twenty-one million Americans made four hundred and twenty-five million visits to practitioners of these types of alternative medicine; more than the estimated three hundred and eighty-eight million visits made to general practitioners that year (Apostolides). The U.S. Department of Education has accredited more than twenty acupuncture schools and more than thirty medical schools now offer courses in acupuncture (Lombardo; Smith). As the number of Western medical institutions researching alternative therapies increases, the legitimacy of at least some alternative therapies will also increase.
Does all this recent medical establishment attention mean that the non-conventional therapies really work? Critics say a definitive scientific answer must await well-designed experiments involving many patients. Up to now, most of the studies have relied on personal observation and anecdotal testimony from satisfied patients. The official position of the American Medical Association (A.M.A.)--alternative medicine's chief critic--is that a patient's improvement or recovery after alternative treatment might just as well be incidental to the action taken. This may be true for scientists and researchers, but the fact is that the people seeking alternative treatments disagree. The solution is obvious: more research needs to be conducted.
Some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, have impressive histories...