Heather McLeod

Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine

Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (TM/CAM)


Allopathic medicine, ...refers to the broad category of medical practice that is sometimes called Western medicine, biomedicine, scientific medicine, or modern medicine.
Source: WHO

From the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002–2005, p1:

 ‘Traditional medicine’ [TM] is a comprehensive term used to refer both to TM systems such as traditional Chinese medicine, Indian ayurveda and Arabic unani medicine, and to various forms of indigenous medicine."

"TM therapies include medication therapies —if they involve use of herbal medicines (herbs, herbal materials, herbal preparations and finished herbal products, that contain as active ingredients parts of plants, or other plant materials, or combinations thereof), animal parts and/or minerals — and non-medication therapies — if they are carried out primarily without the use of medication, as in the case of acupuncture, manual therapies and spiritual therapies.”

“In countries where the dominant health care system is based on allopathic medicine, or where TM has not been incorporated into the national health care system, TM is often termed ‘complementary’, ‘alternative’ or ‘non-conventional’ medicine. Accordingly, ‘traditional medicine’ is used when referring to Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia, and/or the Western Pacific, whereas ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ [CAM] is used when referring to Europe and/or North America (and Australia). When referring in a general sense to all of these regions, the comprehensive TM/CAM is used.”

Traditional medicine (TM) is used when referring to Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia, or the Western Pacific.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is used when referring to Europe, North America or Australia.

TM/CAM is used when referring in a general sense to all of these regions.

“TM is widely used and of rapidly growing health system and economic importance. In Africa up to 80% of the population uses TM to help meet their health care needs. In Asia and Latin America, populations continue to use TM as a result of historical circumstances and cultural beliefs. In China, TM accounts for around 40% of all health care delivered. Meanwhile, in many developed countries, CAM is becoming more and more popular. The percentage of the population which has used CAM at least once is 48% in Australia, 70% in Canada, 42% in USA, 38% in Belgium and 75% in France.”

Quoting from the WHO Legal Status of Traditional Medicine and Complementary/ Alternative Medicine: A Worldwide Review: 

‘Allopathic medicine’ refers to the broad category of medical practice that is sometimes called Western medicine, biomedicine, scientific medicine, or modern medicine. This term has been used solely for convenience and does not refer to the treatment principles of any form of medicine. [M]edical providers and practices are ... described as traditional, complementary/alternative, or allopathic. ‘Provider’ and ‘practitioner’ are used interchangeably.”

The term "biomedicine" has become the preferred term for the dominant form of medicine.

“As the terms ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ suggest, they are sometimes used to refer to health care that is considered supplementary to allopathic medicine. However, this can be misleading. In some countries, the legal standing of complementary/alternative medicine is equivalent to that of allopathic medicine, many practitioners are certified in both complementary/alternative medicine and allopathic medicine, and the primary care provider for many patients is a complementary/alternative practitioner.”

“The terms ‘complementary medicine’ and ‘alternative medicine’ are used interchangeably with ‘traditional medicine’ in some countries. Complementary/alternative medicine often refers to traditional medicine that is practised in a country but is not part of the country’s own traditions.”

“Traditional medicine includes a diversity of health practices, approaches, knowledge, and beliefs incorporating plant, animal, and/or mineral-based medicines; spiritual therapies; manual techniques; and exercises, applied singly or in combination to maintain well-being, as well as to treat, diagnose, or prevent illness."

"The comprehensiveness of the term ‘traditional medicine’ and the wide range of practices it encompasses make it difficult to define or describe, especially in a global context. Traditional medical knowledge may be passed on orally from generation to generation, in some cases with families specializing in specific treatments, or it may be taught in officially recognized universities. Sometimes its practice is quite restricted geographically, and it may also be found in diverse regions of the world. However, in most cases, a medical system is called ‘traditional’ when it is practised within the country of origin.” [emphasis added]

The WHO distinguishes between TM/CAM therapies and the therapeutic techniques that are used by those therapies. See the introduction to the Therapies section.