Complementary / Alternative Medicine

Susan Cooke administers Shiatsu treatment to Alison MacDonald of Regina, January 1999.
Don Healy (Regina Leader-Post)

Complementary/ alternative medicine (CAM) encompasses therapies, healing systems, and self-help practices which do not currently have widespread acceptance within the conventional medical system. They are referred to as alternative when they are used instead of conventional treatments, and complementary when they are used in conjunction with conventional treatments. Many CAM therapies have their roots in ancient healing traditions which include acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), homoeopathy, massage therapy, natural health products (such as herbal remedies), Reiki, yoga, taiji, shiatsu, and meditation. Traditional Aboriginal Healing is a distinctive and unique health system that has much in common with CAM.

The National Institute of Health classifies CAM treatments into the following categories: Physical, e.g., massage therapy; Biological, e.g., herbal remedies; Psychological, e.g., meditation; Energetic, e.g., Reiki; and Complete healing systems, e.g., Traditional Chinese Medicine. The best available estimates suggest that CAM therapies are used by roughly 25% to 50% of the population in most western industrialized countries, including Canada. Rigorous research into CAM has accelerated sharply over the past decade, funded by Health Canada, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and other major granting agencies. Preliminary conclusions regarding the safety and efficacy of some CAM treatments for specific conditions are now available.

Until recently, most CAM practices have lacked reliable mechanisms for quality assurance, such as professionalization, standards, accreditation, formal credentialling, licensing, and self-regulatory bodies. This in turn has made it difficult to differentiate between legitimate, credentialled providers and those who are incompetent or fraudulent. Several CAM therapies will likely achieve status as self-regulating professions in the coming decade. In Saskatchewan, techniques have been disseminated primarily through informal channels, and have been modified through accumulated experience. Some therapies have their roots in Aboriginal healing systems; others derive from European folk-healing traditions.

Some evidence now suggests that each system of health care has its relative strengths: conventional medicine for acute conditions, infectious diseases, and emergency treatment; complementary/ alternative medicine for the prevention and treatment of many chronic conditions involving pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. Integrative medicine, involving the selective incorporation of evidence-based CAM therapies in conjunction with conventional medicine, is currently the focus of several national, provincial, and local initiatives involving research, education, and clinical practice.

Michael Epstein