Q: What is alternative medicine? What is it alternative to?
Dr. Donnica: In general, when we talk about alternative medicine, we're
talking about medicines, foods or modalities that do not meet the research-based
standards of what we call "evidence-based medicine"- this doesn't
mean that they don't have value, it just means that the products have not gone
through the extensive research and scrutiny of the FDA approval process. In
general, the products are not regulated with the same level of scrutiny and
oversight as prescription or over-the-counter medicines, nor is their marketing
or labeling information.
When we talk about alternative medicine, we're also generally talking about
products with alternative sources of distribution, information, and payment.
This is changing daily, however, so do your best to keep up-to-date if you are
using alternative medical therapies.
Categories of alternative medicine include vitamins, herbs, foods, dietary
supplements, and modalities of intervention (e.g. acupuncture, massage, meditation,
biofeedback, etc.). When we talk about alternatives to prescription medicines,
however, sometimes we also mean different choices of prescription or even over-the-counter
medicines, so be careful how you or your doctor is using the term "alternative".
Once a previously labeled "alternative medicine" product has sufficient biomedical
research to support its safety and efficacy in a certain condition, it is no
longer considered "alternative" but a mainstream option. For example, we now
know that soy, in the dose of 6.5 g per day can reduce cholesterol as much as
mild cholesterol lowering drugs; this is proven, and is no longer "alternative".
Other uses for soy remain in the alternative category, however.
National surveys estimate that between 12%--17% of Americans have tried herbal
remedies, and women are the primary users of alternative therapies in general.
We have no data on what percent of these people were satisfied with their choices,
The Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health
was created in 1992 to address these and other related research questions about
alternative medicines. It's initial budget, however was only $2 million! That
annual budget has since been increased to $50 million (equivalent to the average
weekly ticket sales for a popular movie in its 6th week!); this can only begin
to scratch the surface of what we need to know regarding this industry with
$12 billion in annual sales. To put this in perspective, remember that the
entire annual budget for the National Institutes of Health is only $13 billion.
. .and that the annual sales for "natural" products total nearly $14
billion per year.
Created: 9/24/2000  - Donnica Moore, M.D.