Understanding different types of healthcare approaches

Understanding these key terms can help you understand your healthcare options.

When you are looking for the most reliable information to help you get and stay healthy, it can be hard to avoid confusion when all sorts of health jargon is used. This is especially true when terms are used interchangeably from multiple sources. Michigan State University Extension strives to help you sift through some of the information and provide you with reliable, research based information.

The National Health Institute (NIH) has a fact sheet that explains different approaches to medical care in an easy to understand way.

Conventional medicine - provided by someone who has a degree in their allied health profession such as a medical doctor (MD), a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO), nurse (RN, LPN), physiatrist, psychologist, to name a few.

Alternative medicine – non-mainstream practice used instead of conventional medicine. Interestingly, NIH states that over 30 percent of adults and 12 percent of children use alternative healthcare approaches developed outside of Western medicine. 

Complimentary medicine – practices and products of non-mainstream origin and may be used at the same time as traditional prescribed therapies. Complementary approaches can be categorized into natural products and mind/body practices.

  • Natural products - things like herbs, vitamins, minerals, probiotics and dietary supplements. In a 2012 survey, NIH found that 17 percent of adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. Most popular dietary supplement was fish oil. It is important to let your health care provider know if you are using any natural products. They can then monitor and recognize potential safety issues such as interactions with medicines you are currently taking.
  • Mind and body practices - things such as massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, relaxation techniques, mindfulness, tai chi, yoga and hypnotherapy.
  • Other complimentary approaches - things that don’t fit into either of the above categories such as traditional healers, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy.

Integrative medicine - combining conventional and complimentary approaches in a coordinated and intentional way for maximum benefit and symptom relief. Some areas where an integrative approach is currently used include programs to promote health behaviors, improve pain management with veterans and relieve of symptoms for cancer survivors. For example, a person going through cancer treatments may also be encouraged to enroll in mindfulness classes to help ease the symptoms caused by the treatments. According to the NIH, more and more researches are exploring ways integrative healthcare approaches can be used to maximize benefits to patients.

With all these approaches in mind, the most important thing to do is communicate with your healthcare provider. They may be able to provide you with critical information on how any alternative or complimentary approaches may affect your health both negatively and positively. Be your own best advocate and find out as much reliable information as possible about your own health. 

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