The field of alternative health care is not actually an established industry with a defined structure and branches. Although it is sometimes referred to as alternative medicine, that term is too restrictive to describe the diversity of the field. Alternative health care is a collection of approaches to wellness, health care, and medicine. Its modalities can roughly be grouped into three categories: ancient traditional medical systems, more recent complete medical systems, and individual therapies.
Traditional medical systems, such as Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) and traditional Oriental medicine, have been developed and practiced over hundreds of years in the cultures of their origin. These traditional systems are based upon complete philosophies regarding the origins and nature of life, human beings, wellness, and medicine. To successfully learn and practice such systems, you must be open to understanding and integrating a unique value system and worldview into your approach to life and the practice of health care and medicine.
A number of alternative approaches are of more recent origin but also represent complete health care systems. Some, such as homeopathy, originated in other countries. Others, like chiropractic, originated in the United States. Learning these health care systems does not necessarily require a change in philosophy, but many of them require an educational process that is as demanding as the study of conventional medicine.
Other alternative health care approaches focus on a particular type of therapy. Examples of this group are aromatherapy and massage therapy. These therapies are not complete systems of health care. Many of them can be incorporated into the practices of other health practitioners. The therapies generally require less intensive education, but they provide very meaningful opportunities to help people improve their lives.
Helping individuals improve their lives is central to all alternative health care. In spite of their apparent diversity, these approaches have many essential principles in common, such as:
- Believe in the healing power of nature. Whatever approach alternative health care practitioners use, they have a strong fundamental belief in the natural ability of the body to heal itself when given the proper essential ingredients. These ingredients include clean air, water, nutritious food, proper rest, and exercise. Alternative practitioners work to help individuals learn lifestyle changes that will provide their bodies with the natural elements that will help them heal.
- Do no harm. Alternative practitioners choose the therapy or remedy that will do the most good, while at the same time is the least invasive and has the fewest harmful side effects.
- Use natural remedies. Many alternative health care systems emphasize the use of natural remedies, such as whole foods, nutritional supplements, or herbs. Some alternative approaches also incorporate conventional pharmaceuticals and treatments in situations where more natural medicines are not effective. Natural remedies are usually much less expensive than modern pharmaceuticals.
- Consider the whole person. The whole-person approach to healing is an integral part of the belief system of alternative health care practitioners, and they have a deep respect for the dignity of humankind. Their healing treatments consider the entire human being: body, mind, and spirit. They also take into consideration the environment in which individuals live. What are their pressures and stresses? Their hopes and joys?
- Be client-centered rather than practitioner-centered. Practitioners of alternative approaches to health care work to develop a partnership between practitioner and client. They encourage questions and discussion. They involve the client in decisions about medications, procedures, and treatment strategies.
- Use a practitioner-as-teacher approach. This approach emphasizes helping clients learn to improve their lives through the development of healthier lifestyles, including nutrition and exercise. Health care practitioners serve as teachers, coaches, and examples. They present information clients need to learn to make healthier choices. They encourage and support their clients through their successes and failures in their efforts to improve their lives. And they live according to the principles they teach and provide examples that their clients can follow.
- Expect results to generally take time. Alternative health care approaches are frequently used for chronic ailments. Illnesses that have developed over a long period of time may take a while to show improvement. That is not always the case, though, and sometimes results can be so quick as to seem almost miraculous.
- Focus on wellness. Alternative approaches consider health to be much more than just the absence of disease. Prevention of disease is important, but the real goal is for people to reach increasing levels of wellness. Practitioners strive to help their clients achieve physical, mental, and spiritual balance in their lives. Building sound health reduces the incidence of illness and keeps health care costs down.
With its emphasis on wellness, cooperation, and the whole person, the field of alternative health care has brought a new sense of enthusiasm, innovation, and hope to patients, to health care, and to the medical profession. The rapid changes that have occurred in health care and medicine in recent years seem to have a life and momentum of their own. Where will all of this change and enthusiasm lead?