Defining approaches to healing: What does it all mean?

By Jodell Lofgren

Would you call conventional medicine practiced in the United States holistic? How would you classify aromatherapy? Acupuncture? Flower essence remedies? Massage? Reiki? Homeopathy? Osteopathy? Reflexology?

“Conventional,” “alternative,” “holistic,” “complementary” and “integrative” are terms that are thrown around when talking about healing. But what do they mean?

Defining these terms lends clarity of intention, building a foundation for knowing what to expect when working with a practitioner.

To clarify our place in the medical realm as clinical aromatherapists, my teacher, Jane Buckle, presented the following definitions to a consortium of European practitioners. Their intention was to give both practitioners and consumers clear guidelines for practices.

Conventional medicine is the standard medicine of a country or region. In the U.S., conventional medicine is allopathic. In China, acupuncture would be the conventional medicine. In India, ayurvedic is conventional. Conventional medicine has diagnostics and is capable of curing disease.

Alternative medicine also has diagnostic and curative capabilities. A conventional medicine from another country would be considered alternative outside its country or region of origin. By this definition, ayurvedic and acupuncture are alternative in the U.S.

Complementary medicine does not have diagnostic capabilities. It complements conventional or alternative medicines to support a cure. Aromatherapy is a complementary medicine.

Holistic medicine has become a catch phrase for all of the above. Holistic is none of the above and all of the above. It’s none of the above because a practitioner can be alternative or complementary without being holistic. It’s all of the above because a conventional practitioner can be holistic, as can a complementary or alternative practitioner. Holistic is not a definition of medicine. Whatever the medicine, holistic is how we treat others as patients. The integrative definition specifies a holistic medical relationship.

Integrative medicine was not a common term when I began studying aromatherapy. The University of Maryland Integrative Medicine Program’s definition is: Integrative Medicine blends the best of conventional and complementary medical approaches, addressing not only physical symptoms, but also psychological, social, environmental and spiritual aspects of health and illness. It believes in stimulating the innate human capacity for healing, empowering patients in their own care, while providing them with choices in health care that are proven to be safe and effective.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and World Health Organization simply define conventional as Western medicine, diminishing the role of other cultures’ medicines. After due thought, I stand by the definitions presented here. There is a fluidity between cultures and the acknowledgment of different conventions that exemplifies holism.

So, the question remains, would you call conventional medicine practiced in the U.S. holistic? The answer—maybe.

Sources for this article:

1. Integrative medicine definition:

2. Pg. 14 National policy on traditional medicine and regulation of herbal, World Health Organization document,

3. Complementary Medicine: Its current position and its potential for European Health Care

Jodell Lofgren is a licensed massage therapist and certified clinical aromatherapist. She believes in healing, no matter how it’s defined, as long as the approach is holistic.

From the November 11-17, 2009 issue

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