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The term “alternative medicine” is very broad, encompassing a range of practices, products, and passions. And, therein lies the problem.

  • Some have been in use for centuries — yoga, acupuncture, meditation, herbal remedies — while others involve concepts and technology only recently developed.
  • National and international laws regarding what qualifies as “healthcare” and who is qualified to practice are highly splintered and inconsistent.
  • Similarly, regulations surrounding the safety and efficacy of alternative products and procedures are often non-existent or unenforceable.

Regrettably, despite the real promise many forms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has shown, the confusion and lack of oversight in this area has made it ripe for charlatans, quacks, and criminals willing to prey on desperate patients so they can line their own pockets.

Certainly, that doesn’t describe all practitioners of CAM. But, with medical bills comprising the most common cause of bankruptcies and major credit problems, it’s vital for patients to learn how to tell when they need to be concerned. The following facts and tips will help you make smart choices when it comes to working with alternative doctors.

Americans using CAM are not alone.

Roughly ⅓ of Americans have indicated they used some form of alternative medicine regularly. The number rises to just over 40 percent for those who have ever tried something that qualifies as CAM.

CAM is more prevalent in other countries.

In Canada, that number is closer to 80 percent. In Japan, CAM and mainstream medicine co-exist comfortably, and hundreds of traditional herbal remedies are available under the national health insurance system.

The U.S. medical community is coming around to CAM.

In the U.S., mainstream medical professionals have become increasingly accepting of alternative treatment options. A recent Harvard study found that physicians had pointed more than 6 million Americans to a mind-body remedy in the previous year.

Prestigious medical centers are beginning to endorse CAM.

The American Hospital Association says more than a third of the nation’s hospitals offer integrative medicine.

Medical schools are also beginning to get onboard.

Highlighting the future of these trends, nearly three fourths of medical schools in the United States offer elective courses in natural and alternative medicine or include it in courses required for graduation.

Regulations around CAM have not caught up to traditional medicine.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health (NIH) highlights some important points regarding qualifications, certifications, and licensing for CAM practitioners. There is no standardized, national system for credentialing alternative doctors or other practitioners of alternative medicine. It is left up to state and local governments to decide what credentials practitioners must have to work in their jurisdiction.

Lack of regulation creates some confusion for practitioners and patients.

As a result, the credentials and regulations governing complementary health practitioners vary tremendously from place to place and from discipline to discipline.

Chiropractors must be accredited.

“In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, chiropractors must be an accredited Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) and must pass special state exams, exams administered by the NBCE, or both.”

Naturopathic physicians are less prevalent.

“Only 17 states and the District of Columbia license naturopathic physicians. In general, licensure requires graduating from an accredited 4-year naturopathic school and passing a postdoctoral board examination.”

Massage therapists are usually regulated.

Most states regulate massage therapists by requiring a license, registration, or certification. However training standards and requirements for massage therapists vary greatly by state and locality, but most states that regulate massage therapists require a minimum of 500 hours of training.”

In healthcare, confusion can be dangerous.

The NIH concludes with this sobering summary: “Regulations, licenses, and certificates do not guarantee safe, effective treatment from any provider—conventional or complementary… Being licensed or certified is not a guarantee of being qualified.”

CAM has long been a magnet for criminals and charlatans.

It’s important to recognize health care fraud, scams and quackery for what they are. You will never find a reputable medical doctor with nothing but an unbiased desire to help people spending millions to hawk supplements, books, breathing techniques, magnets, or any other products and processes via TV, mail order, or the Internet. That’s simply not how regulated, scientifically-backed medicine is practiced.

If you are considering visiting a CAM provider, there are some smart steps you should take to confirm they are legitimate healthcare professionals who are offering a quality service.

Step One:

First, take the same care in choosing a CAM provider as you would any other medical professional, from your family doctor to your brain surgeon.

Step Two:

Second, seek out recommendations from your trusted medical team. Your doctor or local hospital likely know who in the area has proven themselves to be safe and effective, and who has not.

Step Three:

Third, find out as much as you can about each provider you’re considering. Due diligence can go a long way in turning up facts or anecdotes that may be concerning, or in boosting your confidence.

Step Four:

Fourth, when you first meet with the provider, confirm they are willing to cooperate fully with the rest of your established medical team. If you choose to work with them, make sure your conventional providers know that as well. Open communication and mutual respect are key to safe, effective, coordinated care.

Step Five:

Fifth, explain all of your existing medical conditions, history, and any relevant family history, as well as which treatments you have tried in the past and any care you are receiving now. If what they’re offering is a one-size-fits-all solution to any and every condition, it’s not going to work. If they’ve never worked with anyone with the conditions you present, they may not be the right provider for you.

Step Six:

Finally, understand that health insurance may not cover any or all of the cost of treatment through an alternative doctor. While this is changing (for example, chiropractic care is considered CAM, but is now covered to some extent by most medical plans) it becomes a very important factor in your decision. After all, even alternative medicine can cost a lot.

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