Traditional vs. Complementary/Alternative Veterinary Medicine: A fundamental Distinction

The debate in veterinary medicine between traditional medicine and the numerous alternatives is gaining increased attention and press over the last several years. While the range of opinions varies widely, I wanted to highlight an important distinction between them that is crucial to the discussion. The term “traditional medicine” usually refers to an evidenced-based approach to the diagnosis and treatment of a condition. “Complementary or Alternative medicine” relies on treatment modalities that look to historical precedent, subjective experience, or suspect science to support their use. While alternative medicine can coexist and complement more traditional medicine, the practice of alternative/complementary medicine is not as firmly ground in the scientific method. Therein lies the dilemma and the distinction that you must consider. Many alternative medicine treatments and techniques do not have to be PROVEN to be effective. The standard of proof for alternative/complementary medicine is either low or nonexistent. Traditional medicine as it is practiced in most western countries relies on rigorous statistical analysis and peer-review to establish its efficacy as well as its potential risks.

When alternative medicine is discussed the proposed benefits AND risks are important considerations. The promise of hope often associated with non-traditional medicine is particularly dangerous for people who suffer from chronic or life-threatening disease. As a pet owner you must remember that the burden of proof when recommending an alternative or complementary therapy falls squarely on the veterinarian. As the pet owner you are entitled to a variety of options to care for your pet, but you must insist on evidence for a particular recommendation especially when it seems to be outside of an accepted norm or “feels” inconsistent with your own knowledge or experience. As veterinarians we have a responsibility to cause no harm to your pet and a responsibility to provide the pet owner with the evidence and confidence necessary to make an informed choice.

The practice of “evidence-based” medicine is not always embraced by people in the medical professions. Therefore it is incumbent upon the pet owner to insist on the evidence for a recommendation. If the evidence is scant or non-existent, as it so often is with complementary/alternative medicine, don’t allow yourself to be swayed. More often than not you and your pet are unlikely to realize any real tangible benefits, but fall victim to poorly educated or dishonest people.

3 thoughts on “Traditional vs. Complementary/Alternative Veterinary Medicine: A fundamental Distinction

    1. I agree that communication with the client about proposed treatment or therapy is paramount regardless of the type of medicine practiced. However, a distinction and/or disclaimer should be made regarding the strength or weakness of evidence supporting a proposed course of treatment.

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