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. 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 relationship between unconventional healthcare disciplines and conventional care to defi ning the group of disciplines itself. Some authorities use the term ‘unconventional medicine’ synonymously. More recently the terms ‘integrative’ and ‘integrated’ medicine have been used to describe the delivery of complementary therapies within conventional healthcare settings.
This changing and overlapping terminology may explain some of the confusion that surrounds the subject. We use the term complementary medicine to describe healthcare practices such as those listed in Box 1.1. We use it synonymously with the terms ‘complementary therapies’ and ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ found in other texts, according to the defi nition 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, what is thought to be conventional varies between countries and changes over time. The boundary between complementary and conventional medicine is therefore blurred and constantly shifting. For example, although osteopathy and chiropractic are still predominantly practised outside the NHS in Britain, they are subject to statutory regulation and included as part of standard care in guidelines from conventional bodies such as the Royal College of General Practitioners.