This article was originally submitted to the CAM Educational Project of the Program on Integrative Medicine, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, September 2001. It was updated in 2003 to reflect recent developments in anti-CAM activities in North Carolina.
Natural Medicine Marginalized as CAM?
As the term “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (CAM) becomes a household word in government and academic texts, it is worthwhile to reexamine its significance. “Complementary” and “alternative” imply a juxtaposition to “mainstream” medicine that is questionable for a variety of reasons. The term distorts the real role a diverse group of traditional ethnic and innovative therapies, lumped together under the term CAM, play in the lives of a majority of the world’s population. The term obscures the long-standing exclusion of these treatments by the medical and pharmaceutical power structure from the practice of medicine, which, until a few years ago, labeled (libeled?) these therapies “quackery” and “health fraud”. Today it continues to marginalize them by relegating them to a fictitious category of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, invoking scientific arguments to rationalize this exclusion while avoiding any reference to economic motives. This robs legitimate, but unorthodox, medical paradigms of their rightful place within medical science, and may even be harmful to people’s health.
Millions in Africa, Russia, China, India, Central and South America, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States claim to benefit from homeopathy, acupuncture, ayurveda, herbalism, nature cures, and many other approaches as their main or only method of health care. Most people in those countries neither perceive these therapies as an alternative nor as complementary to “mainstream” medicine. Considering that far more people are treated with “CAM” therapies worldwide than by “Western” medicine, it is a mystery, to say the least, that the definition of the term CAM has not been more widely questioned.
According to an article in the 1999 Bulletin of the World Health Organization, during attempts to study the prevalence of “CAM” in the “developing” world, surveys failed to meet the selection criteria. This is partly due to the fact that “users of traditional therapies in developing countries would almost certainly have different characteristics (than those in the industrialized world)”. The author of the article concludes, “The prevalence and use of CAM is likely to vary according to factors that are not fully understood. The available data are both contradictory and unreliable.” To eliminate these uncertainties he recommends that future studies deal with “named therapies rather than CAM in general.” Could the reason for these uncertainties lie in the murky definition of CAM itself?