Myths surrounding CAM (complementary alternative medicine) are relative and culturally based. What is considered CAM in one country may be the norm in another, and what is a new modality in one place may have been practiced in another for hundreds of years. Even in the same country, what is considered CAM can change with time. For instance, cognitive behavior therapy used to treat depression was at one point considered CAM, but as the therapy grew more prevalent it became mainstream and not CAM (Dittmann, 2004). The myths highlighted here are common in the United States (US), and these perceptions may be different in other areas or change with time.
Myth #1 Lack of Educational Requirements
Some believe that learning a CAM modality does not require extensive education. Some modalities do not require formal licensing, and educational requirements can vary. For instance, aromatherapists do no need education to practice, but the Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC) can register those who have completed at least 200 hours of higher-level education, after completing a qualifying exam. There are modalities that require a four- to six-year degree, equivalent to that of a conventional medical degree. Naturopaths need to go through a four-year full-time program where they receive the same scientific courses as medical doctors, but also take holistic and naturopathic courses (Freeman, 2009). Their study incorporates counseling, herbal medicine, homeopathy, massage, nutrition, and sciences (Grace, Vemulpad, Reid, & Beirman, 2008). Chiropractic school is also a four-year full-time study program with a minimum of 4,200 hours of course work. Specialization requires three more years of study. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) require more training and certification than chiropractors, since they use the same range of diagnostics and treatments as medical doctors (Freeman, 2009).
When selecting a CAM practitioner ask for their level education to determine if they have been properly trained.
Myth #2 Lack of Qualification Required to Practice
Some believe that CAM practitioners are not qualified to treat and diagnose conditions. This may be true for many CAM modalities, but not for all. For instance, although aromatherapists do not need to prove their level of education to practice in the US, they do need to be licensed therapists to treat clients and prescribe essential oils for treatment (Freeman, 2009). Naturopathic doctors need to take a licensing examination after graduating from school, and some states require licenses to practice. In Australia, naturopaths can be primary care physicians, as they “have the knowledge and skills to assess patients, to provide on-going treatment for all aspects of a patient’s health care and/or to direct patients for appropriate care” (Grace et al., 2008, p. 43). Chiropractors and DOs need to be licensed in their respective state to practice.
Licensing requirements vary by state and by modality. It is best to check the state’s requirements to determine which CAM professions require a license.
Myth #3 Lack of Scientific Evidence in Support of CAM
Another misconception is that there is no scientific evidence supporting CAM modalities. Wikipedia (2015) states alternative medicine “is not founded on evidence gathered using the scientific method” and treatments’ effectiveness “are not backed by scientific evidence” (para. 1). This makes CAM seem devoid of a scientific approach, which is inaccurate. The scientific method is commonly defined as a double blind randomized controlled trial (RCT) that includes an experimental group and a control group. The scientific method tests the efficacy of a therapy by giving the experimental group the treatment tested and the control group a similar treatment that offers no therapeutic value (a placebo). For the study to be double-blind, treatments need to be administered such that neither the practitioner nor the patient are aware of who is receiving the treatment and who is receiving the placebo. While this is hard to do in many CAM treatments, such as with aromatherapy where it would be hard to mask the scent of essential oils, it is possible in many others, such as with herbal supplements. In addition, an RCT indicates patients are assigned at random into the therapy or placebo group. Although it can be hard to conduct studies on CAM using an exact double blind RCT model, there is a plethora of scientific evidence on the efficacy of CAM treatments using varied study designs.
Clinical trials exist for a range of CAM modalities including acupuncture, aromatherapy, Ayurveda, diet, exercise, flower essences, guided imagery, homeopathy, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, naturopathy, nutrition, prayer, psychotherapy, Reiki, supplements, therapeutic touch, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and yoga (Gale, 2014). However, some modalities within CAM are not well studied, such as Dynamic Phytotherapy or Homeobotanicals and Bach flower remedies. Also, some clinical trials are poorly designed, involve a comparison of two different CAM modalities, or are influenced by the placebo effect, deeming the trials problematic (Gale, 2014).
Myth #4 Conventional Doctors Do Not Support CAM
One of the most prevalent myths is that conventional or allopathic medical doctors have a negative attitude towards CAM. In many cases, patients will not disclose to their doctor that they are under CAM care for fear that the doctors will not approve or will respond negatively (Robinson & McGrail, 2004). Although some medical doctors feel that way, many not only respect CAM, but also work with CAM practitioners. This is the mainstay of integrative medicine and functional medicine, which focus on the best treatment for the patient, including CAM, allopathic, or both.
Allopathic doctors refer patients to CAM practitioners because CAM offers varied treatment options; CAM treatments can be more affordable, cause fewer side effects, and be less invasive; CAM focuses on preventing illness and promoting health; CAM offers treatments that are holistic, incorporating lifestyle, nutrition, and personal elements; and when allopathic approaches are ill received or ineffective (Grace et al., 2008).
Referrals also work the other way. CAM practitioners refer their patients to allopathic doctors for medical testing and diagnosing. CAM practitioners may not get involved in diagnosis because they are not trained or because they are legally restricted (Grace et al., 2008). Both allopathic and CAM practitioners can work together to provide treatment and a course of action.
Dittman, M. (2004). What is CAM? American Psychological Association, 35(6), 44. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/cam.aspx
Fennell, D., Liberato, A. S. Q., & Zsembik, B. (2008). Definitions and patterns of CAM use by the lay public. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 17, 71-77. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2008.09.002
Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine, A Research-Based Approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Grace, S., Vemulpad, S., Reid, A., & Beirman, R. (2008). CAM practitioners in integrative practice in New South Wales, Australia: a descriptive study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 16, 42-46. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2006.12.001
Robinson, A. & McGrail, M. R. (2004). Disclosure of CAM use to medical practitioners: a review of qualitative and quantitative studies. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 12, 90-118. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2004.09.006
Wikipedia. (2015). Alternative medicine. Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on April 19, 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_medicine