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Complementary or Alternative?

Here’s a question for you; complementary or alternative, which term should we use when we refer to what we do when treating our clients using our therapeutic skills? Do we hear the term complementary as often as we hear alternative? Both are used in the established term CAM therapies which refers to Complementary and Alternative Medicine but what is the difference and more importantly are we complementary or alternative?

First let’s look at the term alternative, to me alternative implies something as being preferable to something that is deemed more acceptable. For example, alternative comedy or alternative rock which purport to be set up as rejecting established stereotypes and have gone a little away from the norm and set out with their own agenda. With this in mind it seems to me alternative is a strange word to use for therapies, as this would mean what is being deemed as alternative has been in practice for thousands of years. So maybe it makes a little more sense for the newer ever evolving systems of treating people with allopathic medicine to be referred to as alternative. With ever increasing new technologies in use, such as PET scans which are the currently new definitive diagnostic tool, and as we hurtle forward leaps and bounds with regard genetics and genetic engineering, surely these are more alternative than what is a more natural system of care and healing. Whilst I am certainly not demanding we bring back bloodletting and leeching I am just not sure how this terminology has come about and how appropriate it is.

Therapies have been in use for thousands of years, why are they regarded as alternative?

To me the common sense argument would be that therapies be recognised as mainstream. I am not even going to mention the fact that in the past many of the people who would have administered herbs and essential oils as treatment for common disorders and diseases would have been outed as witches and warlocks (potential future juicy blog material). But thinking about it, maybe it really should be medical treatments that are deemed as mainstream by the establishment could be viewed as alternative?

Complementary on the other hand describes to me one thing that is used with another to make a whole. One would not exist at its best without the other and when the two are joined, they complement each other in order that one will make up for the others shortfall or deficiencies.

When I began my career as a lecturer over 10 years ago I found it interesting to note that the majority of students referred to the discipline they had chosen to train in as alternative whether it be massage, aromatherapy or reflexology. This was often either due to the fact that they had received beneficial effect from therapies themselves in the past, or that they or family members had been let down by the allopathic care and a little disillusioned had looked at other possible ways of helping with a variety of different conditions.

All clients need to have realistic expectations as to the outcome of any treatment they may have whether that be medical or therapeutic. Often the best overall result for our clients can be achieved through a blend of both as one can often fill in any gaps left by the other. It is extremely important to me that as therapists we work alongside medical care to fully support our clients and that a mutual respect should be given with regard the particular role either play in our clients’ overall health plan. With this in mind and at the forefront of my teaching, it is reassuring to me that nowadays students seem to have become more relaxed and comfortable to be referred to as complementary therapists. The emphasis is now not to work alone but alongside the medical experts to bring the best results to their clients.

Knowing when to refer is a key skill for all health professionals

There are always those clients who completely shun medical health and even congratulate themselves for never having visited a doctor. Whilst it is important that we would always respect our clients wishes we also have a duty of care, meaning that if we were concerned for their health we must always recommend that they take the correct course of action and seek medical diagnosis before we work with them. We should see our role as being one of referring where necessary if outside of our skill set, this not only refers to other complementary health practitioners, but also on some occasions to a GP who has spent years gaining sufficient knowledge to know when it is necessary for further referral to a specialist.

Nowadays complementary therapies are used much more in hospitals and hospices, although there is still a long way to go in my eyes (another future blog in the making). Students who now come to train as practitioners do so with a view to being a complementary therapist, indeed many of them train in a particular discipline with the desire to progress to work in the health services, or to work supporting a particular medical condition. This brings a smile to my heart, as surely this is evidence of practitioners working towards making up a total health care package for clients and patients; a crucial step in the direction of one size does not fit all.

Complementary therapies have limitations as well as do allopathic treatments; the most importance message to pass on is that a blend of both in the right measure enables a beautiful harmonious balance. One where clients and or patients feel listened to and nurtured, whilst medical science can do what may need to be done to help with an imbalance of body systems that need medical intervention. Working as a therapist since the 1990’s it has always been confirmed in my practice that most physical conditions come from or are linked to an emotional imbalance. Given the time and space to express thoughts, fears and concerns always helps a client find their own individual answers to support their healing. So my conclusion is that we should not be referred to as alternative practitioners but complementary therapists.

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