While defining CAM medicine is hard, determining whether someone is a CAM practitioner is also difficult. A medical doctor may prescribe a vitamin to lessen the side effects of a drug. Is he practicing CAM medicine? Maybe or maybe not. Is a doctor who advocates exercising suggesting an alternative treatment? What about someone who recommends light therapy for seasonal depression? Clearly herbs and vitamins fall under the CAM umbrella, but what about yoga or dietary modifications? Or, what about a health care provider who offers an herbal preparation that has been concentrated to the point that it behaves more like a drug? Many drugs, such as digitalis (used for heart disease) are concentrated forms of natural herbs.
A medical doctor using herbs and vitamins may consider himself or herself a standard practitioner because the supplements he or she suggests are backed by scientific studies. Chiropractors or acupuncturists may also consider themselves standard practitioners and be insulted if they are labeled alternative. Acupuncture has been around for over 3000 years. Who is the conventional and who is the alternative practitioner when you look through the eyes of 3000 years of continuous practice?
Clearly, there is a lot of confusion and debate surrounding the definition of CAM medicine and CAM practitioners.
Choosing a CAM Practitioner
Not all CAM practitioners are created equal.
Choosing a CAM practitioner requires some investigative work. There is potential for harm from practitioners who don’t know what they are doing, who aren’t aware of the harmful side effects of what they are prescribing, and who are ignorant of the dangers associated with the course of different illnesses. Many seemingly innocent conditions, like a headache, drooling in a child with a cold, and gas and bloating in a post-menopausal woman all have the potential to be very serious. Is your CAM practitioner willing to refer you to standard medical care if the situation warrants it? Most good CAM practitioners have associations with standard medical practitioners; make sure to ask about this when interviewing a CAM practitioner.
When visiting any complementary and alternative practitioners, checking their background is essential. Many good CAM practitioners attend certified schools and are licensed by the state in which they live; however, other practitioners do not have such education and oversight. While attending a qualified school and being licensed does not necessarily guarantee that the practitioner is honest and knowledgeable, it does amount to some measure of safety. Passing a required exam ensures that a practitioner possesses a basic level of knowledge in the field. In addition, state boards often act as a secondary oversight of the practitioner and can strip them of their ability to practice if they fail to meet certain standards.
Most states license chiropractors and acupuncturists. In addition, naturopathic doctors attend qualified schools and are licensed in some states. Be aware, however, that some people call themselves naturopaths without ever attending a naturopathic medical school and this often leads to confusion.
If practitioners you are thinking of working with are licensed, ask to see their license. Check with the state licensing board if you have any questions about the health care provider, or their medical practices. Asking practitioners about their training and to provide references is also helpful.
If the practitioner is not licensed, then you have more work in front of you. Be more diligent about asking for references and training descriptions. As mentioned above, be certain to discuss relationships with standard medical professionals and what happens if the alternative therapies aren’t working. The severity of your illness is a good barometer for determining how extensively you should investigate the practitioner. A toenail fungus might be easily taken care of through a variety of practitioners; but cancer, heart disease, or severe mental illness require experts who have skill in treating those conditions. Mild depression or anxiety may be remedied with a trip to the health-food store, but self-medicating can often lead to trouble. Having a qualified CAM practitioner and a standard health care practitioner working together, on your behalf, can strengthen the odds that you are getting the best quality of care.