"Alternative Medicine" As Self-Care

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Much of "alternative medicine" is neither used alternatively nor can accurately be called "medicine." Many approaches are simply questionable forms of self-care or extended self-care. Self-care involves the purchase of products, and extended self-care the use of health-related services without a prescription. Such practices are questionable when they lack answers to the basic questions of what they actually are and whether they are safe and effective.

Most consumers who patronize "alternative" providers who are not physicians do not consider their services to be on a par with physicians. Rather, they try them to see whether they have discernable value. Such providers have long stated that their businesses are sustained by medicine's failures. In other words, that patients who have not been cured by standard medical care turn to them as a form of self-experimentation. However, these nonmedical practitioners have yet to reveal how many of these "medical failures" they actually help to improve. "

Alternative" practitioners use popular but poorly defined buzzwords such as "natural," "nontoxic," "cleansing," "holistic." Their "never-say-die" approaches and willingness to try something else when the psychological effects of the last modality wear off keep some chronic sufferers coming back, but most patients give up when results are not apparent. A small minority who don't like physicians and use chiropractors, homeopaths, or naturopaths as their primary-care providers truly patronize what can accurately be dubbed "alternative health care." However, over the past three decades, there has been little, if any, increase in the percentages of people who do this.

In addition to questionable products and services, unusual lifestyle practices have been dubbed "alternative" because they lack clear proof of value. These include meditation, yoga, prayer, and deep breathing exercises. Failure to realize this has produced some faulty business decisions by entrepreneurs who have tried to capitalize on the overzealous media coverage that seemed to indicate that something remarkable was happening among health-care consumers. Business at the "complementary" and "integrative" medicine clinics has not lived up to their publicity. People favor openmindedness to promising new methods by medical doctors, but they expect health professionals to act responsibly and will hold them accountable if they don't.

People also believe in their individuality and tend to trust their own judgment. Self-care has always included a certain degree of empiricism in which people with persistent health problems, real or imagined, have been willing to give almost anything a try. Most of the growth of the "alternative" health care field has been in the sales of over-the-counter herbal remedies as "dietary supplements." Sales have been stimulated by a combination of massive publicity plus marketing through drugstore chains , supermarkets, multilevel distributors, and other retail outlets. Yet surveys have found that many consumers are dissatisfied with the quality of supplement and herbal products and favor greater oversight by the government. The herbal fads appear to be losing their glow as people learn more about their risks and, at best, modest benefits.

Seasoned observers have likened the "alternative" health-care marketplace to a "gold rush." A few people have gotten rich quickly, but the majority will spend more money chasing the gold than that isn't there.


Dr. Jarvis founded and was president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. In 2000, he retired from Loma Linda University, where for many years he served as Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the School of Medicine and Public Health.

This article was posted on December 1, 2000.