69. Complementary and Alternative Medicine

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Abstract

Royalty-Free/Corbis

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and traditional medicine (TM) play a role in public health in both developed and developing countries. CAM describes deliberately chosen alternatives to Western medicine by people who have access to the latter, while TM refers to practices that are used and spread by indigenous people.

In affluent countries, people select CAM according to their specific beliefs, with many more Europeans than Americans using homeopathy, for example. There is little scientific evidence that CAM techniques are safe and effective; however, some studies have shown the efficacy of treatments such as acupuncture and herbal extracts commonly used in pharmaceuticals. Some countries have begun to incorporate CAM into health care plans and to regulate its products and practitioners.

In developing countries, TM is the sole source of health care for all but the privileged few. Contrary to popular belief, however, TM is not always cheaper than conventional medical care, and in some cases, is significantly more expensive. Nonetheless, the expanded use of TM could, in some instances, yield health, social, and economic benefits. In countries where local pharmacies are the primary source of treatment for many ailments, improving the quality of TM might serve as an effective substitute for allowing the unregulated use of conventional modern medical treatments. Training traditional healers is substantially less expensive than training doctors and nurses. Traditional healers can be recruited into a more broad–based system for delivering public health, serving as primary health care workers and providing advice on sexually transmitted diseases, oral rehydration therapy, and other matters.