What is Allopathic Medicine?

Allopathic vs Alternative Medicine

surgeons operating as a form of allopathic medicine
What is the definition of allopathic medicine. National Cancer Institute, John Crawford (photographer)

What is allopathic medicine and what types of treatments would be prescribed by an "allopathic" practitioner? How does allopathic medicine compare and contrast with alternative medicine? What is the history of allopathic medicine? And most importantly, are allopathic medicine and alternative medicine complementary, or should one supplant the other?

Definition: Allopathic Medicine

Allopathic medicine refers to the practice of traditional or conventional Western medicine.

The term allopathic medicine is most often used to contrast conventional medicine with alternative medicine or homeopathy. Complementary medicine is a term which has looked at the role of alternative medicine as a "complement" to allopathic medicine, but the meaning has become obscure in recent years. Integrative medicine is the term that is now used in a way that refers to combining the best of alternative medicine with the best of conventional medicine.

History of Allopathic Medicine

The term allopathic medicine was coined in the 1800's to differentiate two types of medicine. Homeopathy was on one side and was based on the theory that "like cures like." The thought with homeopathy is that very small doses of a substance that cause the symptoms of a disease could be used to alleviate that disease. 

In contrast, allopathic medicine was defined as the practice of using opposites; using treatments that have the opposite effects of the symptoms of a condition.

At that time, the term allopathic medicine was often used in a derogatory sense and referring to radical treatments such as bleeding people to relieve a fever. Over the years this meaning has changed, and now the term encompasses most of the modern medicine in developed countries.

Present Day

As noted, at the present time, the term allopathic medicine is not used in a derogatory way and instead describes current Western medicine.

Most physicians are considered allopathic providers, and medical insurance, in general, only covers these types of providers.

Other terms which are often used interchangeably with allopathic medicine include:

  • Conventional medicine
  • Traditional Western medicine
  • Orthodox medicine
  • Mainstream medicine
  • Biomedicine
  • Evidence-based medicine (In actuality, an alternative medicine approach could be considered evidence-based if significant research has evaluated its efficacy. For example, if acupuncture was shown in a credible double-blind controlled trial to relieve a particular type of pain, then acupuncture for that pain would fit under the criteria of evidence-based medicine)

These allopathic monikers are usually contrasted with practices such as:

  • Alternative medicine
  • Eastern medicine
  • Chinese medicine
  • Homeopathy

Allopathic vs Alternative Medicine - Which is Best?

In general, in the current climate of medicine in the United States, allopathic practitioners tend to look down on alternative medicine practitioners and vice versa. Thankfully this is beginning to change. More and more physicians are finding that alternative practices may be beneficial to patients suffering from a variety of symptoms. Likewise, many alternative practitioners realize that there is clearly a role for allopathic medicine.

If your appendix is inflamed and getting ready to burst, both allopathic and alternative practitioners would want a good surgeon (an allopathic practitioner.) 

Where the lines get fuzzy is when it comes to symptoms. A 2017 study in Brazil of two different regions emphasized that both sides of medicine can be helpful and that it may depend on the diagnosis. In this setting, in which both types of practitioners were present, allopathic providers tended to care for people with conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other conditions in which we have evidence-based studies showing a benefit.

On the other hand, alternative practitioners tended to care for people with conditions such as general aches and pain, flu symptoms, and colds. Many of these conditions are those in which traditional Western medicine has relatively little to offer, and can in fact when used inappropriately (think: antibiotics for viral infections) cause more harm than good.

In the U.S., we are now seeing allopathic and alternative medicine combined as a way to both treat a condition and help people cope with the symptoms; integrative medicine.

Integrative Medicine - Combining East and West

The current trend of combining allopathic medicine for treatment of conditions and alternative therapies for the treatment of symptoms is now available in many major medical centers in the United States, and has been coined "integrative medicine." In this practice, patients theoretically receive the benefit of the best of both worlds, though conventional medicine remains the mainstay of treatment.

Integrative Cancer Care - An Example of Combining Allopathic and Alternative Medicine

An example of integrative care—using the combination of both western medicine and alternative medicine—is taking route in many cancer centers across the U.S.  Allopathic medicine—treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and others—are being used to treat cancer, but "alternative methods" such as acupuncture and meditation are added in to help patients cope with the side effects of cancer and its treatments. Some of these integrative methods which are being used in large cancer centers include:

  • Acupuncture - Acupuncture is the practice of placing needles along meridians (the body's energy fields) in order to balance energy.
  • Massage therapy - Massage has been found to have some general benefits, as well as benefits which specifically help cancer patients.
  • Reiki
  • Yoga
  • Qigong - This is a practice of using meditation and controlled breathing in order to balance energy in the body.
  • Healing touch - Healing touch is a practice in which a practitioner moves her hands over a patient's body in an attempt to facilitate well-being and healing.

Also Known As: mainstream medicine,orthodox medicine,biomedicine

Examples: After being diagnosed with lung cancer, Joe decided to seek therapy at a cancer center that offered both allopathic medicine and alternative treatments

Sources:

National Cancer Institute. Allopathic Medicine. Accessed 10/30/15. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms?cdrid=454742

Zank, S., and N. Hanazaki. The Coexistence of Traditional Medicine and Biomedicine: A Study with Local Health Experts in Two Brazilian Regions. PLoS One. 2017. 12(4):e0174731.

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