In the United States, more than 30% of adults use healthcare approaches that might not be categorized as mainstream medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This type of medicine may be referred to as integrative medicine or complementary medicine. Patients might ask for different methods of treatment, and integrating these complementary therapies into a treatment plan is something medical professionals must evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
What is Complementary Therapy?
According to the Mayo Clinic, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a holistic approach to healing, as it focuses on the entire body and nurtures not just physical health, but also emotional, mental and spiritual health.
Complementary therapy is alternative therapy used along with conventional medical treatment. For example, if a patient has cancer, they would go through chemotherapy while supplementing with other alternative therapies.
Common complementary therapies include:
- Massage therapy
- Herbal medicine
- Chiropractic therapy
There are other terms used to describe complementary therapy, but each are slightly different. Click the arrows in the graphic below to see definitions of the terms associated with complementary therapy:
The Popularity of Complementary Therapy
Although many healthcare professionals are still reluctant to use complementary therapies because they haven’t been proven to work, many Americans still turn to these options. In fact, in 2012, Americans spent $30.2 billion out-of-pocket on complementary health approaches, according to the NCCIH.
From 2002-2012, the number of people using chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage therapies without insurance coverage increased, which indicates more people are willing to pay out-of-pocket costs for complementary therapy, according to the NCCIH.
Many surveyed by the NCCIH indicate they use complementary approaches for wellness reasons – more than 85% take natural products, while more than 90% use yoga for wellness and more than 50% use spinal manipulation for wellness.
Along those lines, physician and author David Rakel’s new book, “The Compassionate Connection,” makes the case for the “healing power of empathy and mindful listening.” His theme is in keeping with the concepts at the heart of complementary therapy – that effective healthcare is not only a matter of assessing, diagnosing and treating a patient.
Effective outcomes also rely on a “whole person” approach to care, which is where empathy, compassion and the simple fact of a caretaker’s physical presence come into play.
Rakel’s ideas are based not on intuition or pseudoscience, but on published studies in various fields – medicine, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, meditation and other topics. Rakel also conducted independent scientific research to test the effectiveness of human touch, empathy and compassion as tools for well-being.
Rakel explains the differences between linear treatment, which is caregiver-focused, and circular treatment, which attempts to help a patient better understand his or her own emotional, mental and physical health – and how all three are connected.
This is the basis of many types of complementary therapy. While patients will always need healing, there is a school of thought that embraces the idea that the more a person understands what keeps him or her healthy, the more likely they are to pursue the activities that lead to better health.
Advantages of Using Complementary Therapy
According to the Southeastern Spine Institute, there are some complementary therapies that can help speed the recovery of patients with back pain. Since complementary therapy approaches patient care in a holistic manner, holistic practitioners can look at other issues in a patient’s life to see if there are outlying causes of back pain. Prescribing pain pills, especially opioids, is under scrutiny now because of the ongoing opioid epidemic, so a holistic approach may be helpful.
Complementary treatments can also be gentler on the body, without some of the side effects that prescription medications bring. Nurses and other healthcare professionals should check a patient’s medical history before using certain herbs or supplements, as some can have adverse interactions with other medications.
It can also be less expensive than conventional medicine, since complementary therapy doesn’t require the expensive tools and techniques of conventional treatment.
Disadvantages of Using Complementary Therapy
As evidenced by how much money Americans spend out-of-pocket on many complementary forms of treatment, it’s often not covered by insurance policies. Additionally, many therapy options lack scientific proof of their efficacy for a broad swath of the population.
Complementary therapy is not a quick solution to a problem. In most cases, it’s a long-term treatment plan and often requires more patient involvement and dedication, as there may be multiple facets in the treatment plan. It also won’t necessarily help in an emergency situation, whereas conventional medicine can quickly intervene.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved many complementary therapies, meaning the industry is not well-regulated. In 2017, the FDA announced intentions to crack down on homeopathic drugs because they were being marketed with false claims.
“In recent years, we’ve seen a large uptick in products labeled as homeopathic that are being marketed for a wide array of diseases and conditions, from the common cold to cancer,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. in a statement. “In many cases, people may be placing their trust and money in therapies that may bring little to no benefit in combating serious ailments, or worse – that many cause significant and even irreparable harm because the products are poorly manufactured or contain active ingredients that aren’t adequately tested or disclosed to patients.”
Complementary therapy requires a lot of research before being implemented, and it’s vital for healthcare professionals to be well-versed in holistic medicine before trying to use it with patients. With Jacksonville University’s RN to BSN program, students can learn about holistic nursing practices and the best ways to implement complementary therapies.