Alternative medicine practices may incorporate into their procedures or base themselves on concepts as diverse as traditional medicine, which describes medical knowledge developed over centuries within various societies before the era of modern medicine, or folk knowledge, which is a treatment to cure a disease or ailment that employs certain spices, vegetables, and other common items, or spiritual beliefs, or even newly conceived approaches to healing.

When alternative medical practices exist in large numbers within a particular geographical area, the appropriate authorities may license and regulate them. In essence, this relates to the fact that many of these practices are unable to offer actual evidence to substantiate their claims, so that the safety and efficacy of many of these practices cannot be verified.

This inability to provide undisputed evidence has caused some to suggest that it should be regarded as a non-evidence based form of medicine.

In 1998, a study was set up with a view to determining the extent to which alternative techniques were used in the 13 selected countries. In the case of cancer patients, it was found that some 31% used complementary or alternative treatments. However, it was also found that the application of alternative medicine varied from country to country. In particular, it was found that, in Austria and Germany, it was controlled primarily by doctors. Further, it has been suggested that around half is in the hands of doctors in the US.


A universal description of the two techniques is, as yet, not available. However, the Cochrane Complementary Medicine Field suggests that complementary methods relate to those that are outside established techniques.

Further, those who use such techniques regard it as preventing or treating illness, together with promoting health and well-being. Such techniques complement established medicine procedures. Also, such variants may satisfy a demand that may not be readily available.

Methods that are used either on their own or in place of traditional methods are typically regarded as alternative. On the other hand, techniques that are used in conjunction with or to augment generally accepted treatments are deemed to be complementary in nature.

A good example of complementary medicine is the application of aromatherapy in which the scent of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees is inhaled in order to aid health and to create a feeling of well-being in the patient.

When conventional and alternative medical treatments are practiced in association with each-other, this is known as integrated medicine. However, a prerequisite is that the alternative treatments have actual scientific proof to confirm their efficacy. In fact, such treatments are viewed by many as the most appropriate examples of complementary medicine.

When the focus is centered on finding a cure and/or a change in the patient’s lifestyle, then a combination of orthodox and complementary medicine is known as integrated health.

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