Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of complementary medicine

What is complementary medicine?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 11 September 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:693
  1. Catherine Zollman,
  2. Andrew Vickers

    Definitions and terms

    Complementary medicine refers to a group of therapeutic and diagnostic disciplines that exist largely outside the institutions where conventional health care is taught and provided. Complementary medicine is an increasing feature of healthcare practice, but considerable confusion remains about what exactly it is and what position the disciplines included under this term should hold in relation to conventional medicine

    Embedded Image

    In the 1970s and 1980s these disciplines were mainly provided as an alternative to conventional health care and hence became known collectively as “alternative medicine.” The name “complementary medicine” developed as the two systems began to be used alongside (to “complement”) each other. Over the years, “complementary” has changed from describing this relation between unconventional healthcare disciplines and conventional care to defining the group of disciplines itself. Some authorities use the term “unconventional medicine” synonymously. This changing and overlapping terminology may explain some of the confusion that surrounds the subject.

    View this table:

    Common complementary therapies

    Definition of complementary medicine adopted by Cochrane Collaboration

    “Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a broad domain of healing resources that encompasses all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. CAM includes all such practices and ideas self-defined by their users as preventing or treating illness or promoting health and well-being. Boundaries within CAM and between the CAM domain and that of the dominant system are not always sharp or fixed.”

    We use the term complementary medicine to describe healthcare practices such as those listed in the box. We use it synonymously with the terms “complementary therapies” and “complementary and alternative medicine” found in other texts, according to the definition used by the Cochrane Collaboration.

    Which disciplines are complementary?

    Our list is not exhaustive, and new branches of established disciplines are continually being developed. Also, …

    View Full Text

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription