What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a phrase that is becoming more widely used to describe natural health care systems, practices and products. This fact sheet explains what CAM is, the major types of CAM, and who provides these services in New Zealand.

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?
What is Integrative Medicine?
What Are the Major Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
Who Provides CAM Services in New Zealand?

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?
Complementary and alternative medicine is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Other terms for complementary and alternative medicine include unconventional, non-conventional, unorthodox, natural medicine, natural therapies, holistic, and traditional healing. The list of what is considered to be CAM changes continually, as those therapies that are proven to be safe and effective become adopted into conventional health care, and as new approaches to health care emerge.

Conventional medicine is medicine as practiced by GPs and by their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Other terms for conventional medicine include biomedicine, allopathy, Western, mainstream, modern, orthodox, and regular medicine. Some conventional medical practitioners are also practitioners of CAM.

The terms complementary and alternative are often used interchangeably, when in fact they are two different therapeutic approaches.
Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine. An example of a complementary therapy is using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient's discomfort following surgery.
Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. An example of an alternative therapy is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy that has been recommended by a conventional doctor.


What is Integrative Medicine?
Integrative medicine, also known as functional medicine, combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness. It is used for:

• Managing symptoms
• Increasing wellness (quality of life, reported sense of wellbeing)
• Improving treatment efficacy

Basic Principles of Integrative Medicine
• A partnership between patient and practitioner in the healing process
• Appropriate use of conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body's innate healing response
• Consideration of all factors that influence health, wellness and disease, including mind, spirit and community as well as body
• A philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative medicine uncritically
• Recognition that good medicine should be based in good science, inquiry driven and open to new paradigms
• Use of natural, less invasive interventions whenever possible
• The broader concepts of promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as the treatment of disease
• Practitioners as models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development


What Are the Major Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
There are five major categories, or domains:

1. Alternative Medical Systems
Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems have evolved apart from, and earlier than, the conventional medical approach. Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine. Examples of systems that have developed in non-Western cultures include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.

2. Mind-Body Interventions
Mind-body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream (for example, patient support groups and cognitive-behavioural therapy). Other mind-body techniques are still considered CAM, including meditation, prayer, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), hypnotherapy, and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, or dance.

3. Biologically Based Therapies
Biologically based therapies use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements and herbal products. Many of these therapies overlap with conventional medicine’s use of dietary supplements.

4. Manipulative and Body-Based Methods (Bodywork)
Manipulative and body-based methods are based on manipulation and/or movement of one or more parts of the body. Some examples include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage.

5. Energy Therapies
Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. There are two types:

Biofield therapies are intended to affect energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body. The existence of such fields has not yet been scientifically proven. Some forms of energy therapy manipulate biofields by applying pressure and/or manipulating the body by placing the hands in, or through, these fields. Examples include qigong, reiki, and therapeutic touch.

Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current or direct-current fields.


Who Provides CAM Services in New Zealand?  
The majority of CAM services (excluding the self-prescription of products) are provided by CAM practitioners (natural health practitioners) in private practice.  These practitioners usually have some training in one or more CAM modalities. Some CAM practitioners are based in multidisciplinary clinics that may also offer mainstream general practitioner (GP) services. Other practitioners operate informally out of their own homes.

Some GPs practise CAM themselves, and some others refer patients to CAM practitioners for treatment. Some other mainstream health professionals, such as nurses and physiotherapists, also practise CAM therapies and use them to treat their patients when appropriate.

Traditional healers, such as tohunga and fofo, may provide services out of a combined practice (with GPs and other health professionals), from private practices, from home, or by home visits.

Many health food stores and pharmacists provide advice on CAM products such as vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies and homoeopathic medicines.

Many people self-prescribe CAM products without seeing a practitioner.  This can be in the home (using food products for medicinal purposes), by purchasing products at the supermarket (such as vitamins, minerals or herbal-based products) or by purchasing products from pharmacies or health stores.

Traditional knowledge that has been passed down, often through the family, is also frequently used to diagnose and treat conditions.



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