Integrative medicine is the same as alternative medicine, right?


Although the popular media often portray these two terms interchangeably, integrative medicine is a philosophy that is considerably different from the widely used (and misused) “alternative medicine.” To fully understand my advice — presented to physicians and health care providers through training programs offered by the University of Arizona Center For Integrative Medicine (AzCIM) in Tucson, on my website, in books and lectures, and reflected in the daily practice of thousands of physicians worldwide — it’s important to grasp what integrative medicine is, and what it is not.

The first step is mastering some basic terms.

Using medications and surgery to treat health conditions was known just a few decades ago as, simply, “medicine.” Today, this system is increasingly being termed “conventional medicine.” It is what most Americans still encounter in doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics. Often both expensive and invasive, it is very good at some things; for example, handling emergency conditions such as traumatic injury, strokes, and heart attacks. I am unstinting in my appreciation for conventional medicine’s strengths. If I were hit by a bus, I’d want to be taken immediately to a high-tech emergency room, not to a shaman, herbalist, or chiropractor. But I know that while some conventional medical treatments are scientifically validated, others are not.

Any therapy that is typically excluded by conventional medicine and that patients use instead of conventional treatment is “alternative medicine” — a catch-all term that includes hundreds of old and new practices ranging from acupuncture to homeopathy and iridology. In many cases alternative therapies are closer to nature, cheaper and less invasive than conventional ones, although there are exceptions. Some alternative therapies are scientifically validated, some are not. When alternative medical practices are used in conjunction with conventional ones, they are known as “complementary” therapies. Example: using ginger syrup or cannabis to prevent nausea during chemotherapy. CAM is the commonly used acronym for “complementary and alternative medicine.”

Enter integrative medicine. As defined by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health, integrative medicine “combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness.”

In other words, integrative medicine selects the very best, scientifically validated therapies from both conventional and CAM systems. In his New York Times review of my book, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, Abraham Verghese, M.D., summed up this orientation well, stating, “De. Weil doesn’t seem wedded to a particular dogma, Western or Eastern, only to the get-the-patient-better philosophy.”

So this is a basic definition of integrative medicine. What follows is the complete one, which serves to guide my work, the AzCIM training programs, and the work of integrative medicine physicians and teachers around the world:

Integrative medicine is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.

The principles of integrative medicine:

  • A partnership between patient and practitioner in the healing process
  • Appropriate use of conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body’s innate healing response
  • Consideration of all factors that influence health, wellness and disease, including mind, spirit and community as well as body
  • A philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative therapies uncritically
  • Recognition that good medicine should be based in good science, be inquiry driven, and be open to new paradigms
  • Use of natural, effective, less-invasive interventions whenever possible
  • Use of the broader concepts of promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as the treatment of disease
  • Training of practitioners to be models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development.

Learn more about the advantages of integrative medicine:

Dr. Weil next book, Mind Over Meds: Know When Drugs Are Necessary, When Alternatives Are Better — and When to Let Your Body Heal on Its Own will be published in April, 2017.

Originally published at

Originally published at