Edzart ERNST

- Professor, Director, Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter & Plymouth

To what extent is complementary medicine sectarian ?

Complementary medicine (CM) has become important not least because of its popularity. Between one and three quarter of the general population of developed countries use some form of CM. CM can be defined as :

" Diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention which complements mainstream medicine by contributing to a common whole, by satisfying a demand not met by orthodoxy or by diversifying the conceptual frameworks of medicine " [1].

All survey data agree that CM is used mostly by individuals who are female, affluent, middle-aged and well-educated. The field of CM is in parts associated with what might be seen as sectarianism. It dissents from conventional medicine in several aspects, for instance, in not accepting science as a way of evaluating its interventions. It is heretical, for instance, in disregarding important concepts of pathophysiology or adhering to a special set of teachings and practice.

It is ecclesiastical, for instance, in substituting knowledge with belief and promoting distinct doctrines which are not in line with conventional medicine. Parts of CM meet the definition of a cult by holding narrow and partisan views. In some areas (e.g. chiropractic) such attitudes seem to have increased in recent times.
In other areas (e.g. herbal medicine) they are decreasing and giving way to evidence-based medicine, which in principle is applicable to CM. [2]

Reference List:

[1] Ernst E et al. Complementary medicine - a definition. Br J Gen Pract 1995; 45: 506.
[2]Ernst E, Pittler MH, Stevinson C, White AR. The desktop guide to complementary and alternative medicine. Edinburgh; Mosby. 2001.