If you need a more accessible version of this website, click this button on the right. Switch to Accessible Site


You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Close [x]

Follow Us

Wellness is a Journey, Not a Destination

The History and Policy of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States

Michael Tereo // 18 April 2016

The United States health care policy is in dire need of attention not only from

policymakers, but also health care professionals, and the community at large. A conflict between

the two major medical traditions, conventional medicine and complementary and alternative

medicine (CAM), complicated the relationship between policy makers, professional medical

communities, and patients. While the health care system changed rapidly throughout the course

of the twentieth century, conventional medicine became the orthodoxy. Underneath the systems

complex evolution, economic mechanisms, principally marketing and profitability, blurred the

lines between alternative and conventional medicine. 1 The American Medical Association

(AMA) was and remains a key proponent of conventional health care and the main employer of

these economic mechanisms. As a result, it has gained a strong influence on the public

perception, medical journals, medical schools, state medical societies, and the U.S. Congress.

While conventional medicine has introduced some break through procedures and remedies, the

focus of health care in America has lost sight of promoting what is best for the patient. Over the

past thirty years, there has been a growing interest in complementary and alternative medicine

practices. Reform needs to refocus the system on nurturing wellness through an approach that

seeks to prevent illness and promote a balanced lifestyle. Updated programs and channeled

support from the federal government and medical practitioners will be instrumental in improving

The history of modern health care in the United States began its convoluted and complex

evolution in the late nineteenth century when the development of the “Germ Theory” and

accompanying scientific validation, technique, and innovations revolutionized the medical field. 2

Up until this point, health care in the United States did not favor a particular approach to

1 Michael S. Goldstein, The persistence and resurgence of medical pluralism, 940.

2 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 5.


medicine and largely consisted of home remedies. This all changed when Louis Pasteur proposed

the Germ Theory, which blamed all disease related conditions on foreign agents that were

outside of the patient’s control. 3 Focus shifted to treating the symptoms rather than the

underlying medical problem. This methodology developed into allopathic or conventional

medicine, which focuses on isolating a medical condition and prescribing either one or several

allopathic methods, such as drugs, surgery, and other technological approaches. These allopathic

methods “have come to dominate conventional health care.” 4 On the other side, practitioners of

CAM believe in healing the body from within, and believe it is an interconnected system on a

whole. Different practices of alternative medicine strive to nourish and help the body back into

balance through support and natural treatments that promote the strengthening of the body as a

whole. Common CAM practices include chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, dietary

supplements, and homeotherapy.

Toward the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, scientific

advances backed by the Germ Theory, and changes to medical education, helped conventional

medicine evolve into the dominant system. 5 As a consolidated field of conventional medicine

formed, a business, and eventually a monopoly, emerged from medical professionals who

formed guild-type organizations and tactics for complete control over medicine, such as the

American Medical Association. 6 Not only did members establish market control early on, but

they also devised the rules, regulations, and modern legislative institutions of the state. 7 By

treating the medical field like a business, they effectively created scarcity, monopolized supply,

and eliminated external competition. With the Germ Theory and other scientific findings,

3 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 5.

4 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

5 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 5.

6 Jeffrey Lionel Berlant, Profession and Monopoly, 50.


individuals had a set of validated data to back their position along with the right allocations of

The underlying platform to success for conventional medicine was the transformation in

medical education along with various scientific breakthroughs. The medical community and

public in general valued rational scientific data and results, which seemed to be evident in

practices such as surgery, vaccinations, and various drugs. As a result, a strong majority believed

in the superiority of scientific medicine. 8 The conventional approach to medicine was systematic

and procedural, which led to a demand for a formalized, scientific approach that was universal to

every patient. Additionally, in 1904, the American Medical Association created the Council on

Medical Education (CME) and mandated the reform of medical education as its primary goal. As

a result, it devised an ideal medical curriculum that completely favored the conventional

In 1892, William Osler published The Principles and Practice of Medicine, a textbook that

formalized a curriculum around conventional techniques and eventually evolved into the primary

textbook in medical schools. 9 This created a strong relationship between medical schools and the

American Medical Association. Within this relationship, the AMA grasped control over

licensing boards, which fall under the responsibility of representatives from state medical

societies. 10 This armed the AMA with legal power and a large influence over education, which

any accredited physician must obtain in order to legally practice. The AMA controlled the

curriculum of medical schools and only pushed material that applied to conventional medicine.

Another setback for CAM came as a result of the Flexner Report. 11 In 1910, the Carnegie

8 WG Rothstein, American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science.

9 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

10 Jeffrey Lionel Berlant, Profession and Monopoly, 57.

11 John Abramson, Overdo$ed America, 196.


foundation donated large sums of money to the CME in order to conduct a report and develop

strict requirements for medical practice under state jurisdiction. This had a direct consequence on

alternative medicine, as “schools for many unorthodox healing systems either ceased to exist or

became marginalized.” 12 Since alternative medicine does not isolate regions of the body and

treats the body as an interconnected system, “The AMA sought to eliminate schools that failed to

adopt this rigorous brand of systematized, experiential medical education.” 13 Many medical

practices that failed to meet the new standard geared toward conventional methods had to adapt

to these scientific standards or shutdown.

The AMA confirmed its leading role in the medical field and enacted doctrine that strictly

limited health care providers. In addition, the AMA, with a strong reputation among the medical

community and public, became the centralized authority of health care. As such, it pushed

standards that defined the medical profession and doctrine, such as the Principles of Ethics. 14

With work carefully crafted by the AMA, all medical professionals felt pressured to conform to

AMA standards and obtain membership, as those who did not adhere to the streamlined agenda

pushed by the AMA were perceived as unqualified physicians. 15 Conventional medicine pushed a

dominant role early on and imposed standards that were not inclusive of CAM practices. The

conventional system pushed physician superiority and eliminated patient autonomy, as “the

physician claims authority to define the patient's interest and to select the means for achieving

them, and the patient is expected to comply.” 16 Most Americans bought into this system, and “a

third or more of Americans were patronizing CAM practitioners at that time in the 1920’s.” 17

12 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

13 A. H. Beck, "The Flexner Report and the Standardization of American Medical Education."

14 Jeffrey Lionel Berlant, Profession and Monopoly, 112.

17 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 3.


Before examining the impact of licensing on the CAM community, it is important to

observe the relationship between the AMA and state medical societies. Policy stands taken by

the AMA more often than not came from representatives of medical societies who held positions

in the AMA, such as on the Board of Trustees. State medical societies would proceed to adopt

the policy stand, revealing the interconnected nature of the two entities. The AMA action of

granting state medical societies licensure privileges attested to the most enduring part of the tie it

had created. The AMA highly valued this relationship and successfully attempted to use state

influence to prevent bureaucratic changes in the federal government, and in the private sector,

from diminishing the AMA’s influence. 18

Although licensing for CAM began in the late nineteenth century, it has always been an

arduous process for practitioners and a challenge throughout the late twentieth century.

Conventional practices united early on and engaged in both economic tactics and legal

maneuvers within state legislatures to eliminate competition. 19 Medical societies had a strong

influence on state licensing boards and medical doctors placed immense pressure on individual

states from passing licensing laws for CAM. 20 However, CAM practitioners resisted and filed

law suits against conventional medical associations. It was not until the 1970s that chiropractic

and osteopathy received licensing protection in all fifty states. 21 Additionally, medical doctors, in

joint efforts with state medical societies and the AMA, censured members who coordinated with

CAM practitioners and “successfully opposed the appointment of CAM practitioners to positions

in public schools, medical hospitals, medical schools, and the military medical corps.” 22

The AMA continued to push legislation that favored allopathic medicine and hindered

18 Jeffrey Lionel Berlant, Profession and Monopoly, 248.

21 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 5.


other practices of medicine. It engaged in actions that served to damage the reputation of CAM

practitioners. Since the early nineteenth century, the AMA has strongly vilified alternative

practices, labeling them as “cultic” and “dangerous”. Most spokespersons of regular medicine

would commonly use the term “quackery”, pushing that alternative medicine lacked research,

scientific backing, and any real results. 23 Much of this behavior came to light in the case of Wilk

vs. American Medical Association in 1987. 24 Judge Susan Getzendanner found the AMA and

others guilty of undermining chiropractic in the case, as she described the conspiracy as a

''systematic, long-term wrongdoing and the long-term intent to destroy a licensed profession.’” 25

The court found the AMA guilty of injuring the reputation of chiropractic, forbidding doctors

from referring patients to chiropractors, and forming the Committee on Quackery with the intent

to destroy the chiropractic profession. The AMA formed the Committee of Quackery in and

empowered it to use overt and covert tactics to slander and eliminate chiropractic. 26

The arrival of external third parties in 1912 posed an additional challenge to CAM

practices. With the intent of ensuring its monopoly, the AMA developed relationships with many

institutions, such as commercial health insurance plans, Mayo Clinic, Kaiser-Permanente, and

the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans. 27 Perhaps the largest growing third party entity was the

pharmaceutical companies, as the emergence of sulfa drugs in the 1930s and antibiotics in the

1940s garnered further support for conventional medicine. 28 With scientific validity behind drugs

and antibiotics, the public labeled many alternative methods as “unscientific relics of the past.” 29

Drugs offer an easy and quick fix to perceived health problems even though most of them only

23 Charles E.Rosenberg, Our Present Complaint : American Medicine, Then and Now, 124.

24 Wilk v. American Medical Association, 895 F.2d 352 (7th Cir. 1990).

25 "U.S. Judge Finds Medical Group Conspired Against Chiropractors," The New York Times.

26 Simpson, J. Keith. "The influence of political medicine”.

27 Jeffrey Lionel Berlant, Profession and Monopoly, 107.

28 Norma G. Cuellar, 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine, 3.

29 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.


provide temporary relief to symptoms. Drugs are man-made substances composed of an

unnatural, synthetic chemical that makes them patentable. Once again, economic mechanisms

employed by allopathic medicine became a driving force behind health care. Behind these

massive corporations are strategic and expensive advertising campaigns that heavily outweigh

any advertising pushed by CAM. Big pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money each year

pushing the scientific validity of mainstream medicine through commercials, medical

publications, and the general media.

Three important trends fully emerged around 1970 that were instrumental in gaining

support for CAM. The first was the rise of chronic and degenerative illnesses that came as a

result of conventional medicine. The average lifespan increased during the twentieth century.

Allopathic medicine had to address the accompanying chronic illnesses, such as back pain and

arthritis, but could not adequately solve these issues through conventional approaches despite its

efforts. This growing issue consequently led to the second trend of rising healthcare costs.

Between 1965 and 1975, national health care expenditures more than tripled, rising from just

over $41 billion to nearly $130 billion. 30 These two trends culminated in a growing skepticism

and frustration with conventional practices, as patients were paying more than ever before

without seeing the promised results. For example, patients with lower back pain, one of the

chronic issues that emerged during this time period, did not have effective results using

conventional treatments, especially in the long run, despite the push from mainstream medicine. 31

Some medical doctors realized the limited scope of what drugs could accomplish and began to

accept CAM as a medical field. As a result, some of these medical doctors incorporated holistic

practices on their own or referred patients to a CAM practice. More than anything, the actual

30 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.


driving force of this transition was the patient. However, due to the divided line between the two

medical fields, communication between the two and with the patient has ceased to exist. Toward

the end of the twentieth century, the reemergence of CAM set the stage for needed policy action

and changes to the health care community.

Before CAM can gain any sort of major traction, the creation of policy and other

organization needs to address certain obstacles. First, there needs to be a thorough resource that

provides information on the capabilities of all CAM practices with sound research data. Second,

there needs to be full cooperation from external parties, particularly the full reimbursement for

CAM practices. Third, there needs to be attempts to merge the education and communication gap

between conventional and CAM practitioners with the underlying intention of providing the best

possible care to patients.

Opponents of CAM have always claimed that its practices are unscientific and lack the

support of clinical trials. However, this is not necessarily the case and should not be used as a

reason to completely squander a practice that may offer potential healing and wellness benefits.

From early on, a negative connotation has been associated with CAM by the medical community

and the public. This has caused many patients to not inform their primary physician of their

desire or current usage of CAM practices. For example, one survey found that around 55 to 85

percent of those who used CAM therapies did not inform their physicians because “they assumed

the physicians would not be interested, would respond negatively, would not understand, or

would dominate the conversation due to assumed disinterest.” 32 In another survey conveying the

physician's perspective, 57 percent of doctors were unaware that their patients were using CAM

services. 33 All parties, particularly medical doctors, need to become more knowledgeable and

32 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.


accepting of the benefits that CAM can offer.

The past thirty years has witnessed a rise in support and cooperation from external

agencies and the federal government. Several organizations began to form, such as the American

Holistic Medical, and Nurses Associations. Many CAM oriented conferences, clinics, and

centers also emerged as a result. 34 However, a majority of Americans do not have coverage for

CAM services. In the early twenty first century, solutions to this problem were in movement, as

there was a growing interest to cover CAM services among insurance and managed care

industries. 35 Despite the conventional domination in medical schools, there has also been a recent

merger of the two fields in the educational setting. Moving into the twenty first century, more

than two-thirds of mainstream medical schools currently offer courses and material on CAM

practices. 36 Scientific findings, medical schools, and external third parties have always had an

integral part of setting the attitude and agenda of health care in the U.S., and continue to impact

the direction of the medical field today.

There has been a call for a national health and wellness initiative to address the nation’s

appalling health trajectory through a refined focus on prevention and wellness. Federal

expenditures for CAM have been on the rise since the 1990s. In 1991, Congress passed

legislation that allocated two million dollars to establish the Office of Alternative Medicine

within the National Institutes of Health. 37 Gradual and effective integration between conventional

and CAM services should focus on incorporating the best of each. Before constructing policy for

integration, there needs to be collaborative efforts on all parts. Collaborative efforts could

resemble a referral system, which would establish a network of physicians and CAM

34 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

35 Mary Ann Liebert, Interim Progress Report, 710.

36 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

37 Susanna Hornig Priest, Encyclopedia of science and technology communication, 34.


practitioners for patients to access at their convenience. Within this network, there needs to be a

streamlined agenda that promotes wellness, not profits. In order for this to happen, health care

reforms need to include better mechanisms for communication between patients and their health

care providers. Consumers, health care practitioners, and other members of the public have

expressed a desire for a centralized source within the Federal government to get objective and

comprehensive information on CAM. 38 Despite what resources are available, information on

CAM from the Federal government is inconsistently available and often difficult to locate.

One major step that facilitated efforts in the right direction was the White House

Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (WHCCAMP), which “was

established in March 2000 to address issues related to the access and delivery of CAM, priorities

for research, and the need for better education of consumers and healthcare professionals about

CAM.” 39 Former U.S. President Bill Clinton established this commission of twenty members

through an executive order and sought to formulate policy action around CAM practices.

Overall, it highlighted the need for a centralized coordination of federal efforts. The

establishment of the commission had a bilateral effect on the rest of the CAM community. The

Commissioners have urged for more funding in research on CAM practices that offer the greatest

potential for addressing pertinent, ingrained health issues in order to help citizens understand the

benefits and the liabilities of various practices. 40 Also, the Commissioners strongly believed in

holding all systems of health and healing, both conventional and CAM, to the same standards,

which would make the system more accountable and effective.

Moving forward, the health care system needs to implement aspects of the Patient

Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to their full advantage, as there are many inherent

38 "White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.


implications for CAM within the polices. The underlying focus of the PPACA of 2010 is

prevention and wellness. Section 4001 established a National Prevention, Health Promotion, and

Public Health Council. The purpose of this is “to provide coordination and leadership at the

federal level, on prevention, wellness, and health promotion practices through the public health

system and through integrative health care.” 41 After the implementation of the PPACA, the

Council and Advisory Group had up to one year to develop and set specific goals and objectives

for improving health promotion and public health programs. In addition, the Council was

required to report to the President by July 1, 2010, and each year after on its progress. Keeping a

balanced approach centered on wellness is critical for any success. Section 4002 established a

Prevention and Public Health Fund that is supposed to expand and sustain “investment for

prevention, wellness, and public health activities.” 42 The PPACA, from the perspective of CAM,

has many portions that will place health care in the right direction, as it “seeks to open doors that

have previously been closed.” 43

There will be a constant need to adapt and change when it comes to policy making. The

medical field must put its differences aside and formulate a flexible plan that puts patients in

control with full access to reliable information and services. Additionally, policy needs to adapt

to the needs of the patient and related scientific data. For this to be possible, scientific findings

on CAM must be transparent and accessible by all parties, as they will provide a reliable,

objective basis for policy making. Any individual or entity involved in the healthcare system

must return the focus solely to ensuring patient wellness, and corresponding policy must keep the

system accountable. Although the inner working of the human body are complex, the process of

living healthy is a relatively simple process, and with the right direction from the health care

41 "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Prevention and Wellness Provisions." AUCD, 1.

43 Daniel Redwood, Health reform, prevention and health promotion, 3.


community and corresponding policy, the United States can make significant strides in its overall



Abramson, John. 2005. Overdo$ed America : The Broken Promise of American Medicine. New

York: Harper Perennial.

Beck, A. H. "The Flexner Report and the Standardization of American Medical Education."

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 291, no. 17 (2004): 2139-140.

Accessed March 28, 2016. doi:10.1001/jama.291.17.2139.

Berlant, Jeffrey Lionel. 1975. Profession and Monopoly : A Study of Medicine in the United

States and Great Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cuellar, Norma G. 2007. Conversations in complementary and alternative medicine: Insights

and perspectives from leading practitioners. The Journal of Alternative and

Complementary Medicine 13 (1).

Goldstein, Michael S. 2004. The persistence and resurgence of medical pluralism. Journal of

Health Politics, Policy and Law 29 (4).

Liebert, Mary Ann. "Interim Progress Report: White House Commission on Complementary and

Alternative Medicine Policy." The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine

"Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Prevention and Wellness Provisions." AUCD. June

03, 2010. Accessed April 08, 2016. http://www.aucd.org/template/page.cfm?id=966.

Priest, Susanna Hornig. 2010. Encyclopedia of science and technology communication.

Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.

Redwood, Daniel. 2010. “Health reform, prevention and health promotion: Milestone moment on

a long journey.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.).

Rosenberg, Charles E. 2007. Our Present Complaint : American Medicine, Then and Now.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Rothstein, William G., and Stanton A. Friedberg, M.D. Rare Book Collection of Rush University

Medical Center at the University of Chicago. 1972. American Physicians in the

Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Simpson, J. Keith. "The influence of political medicine in the development of the chiropractic

profession in Australia." (2002).

"U.S. Judge Finds Medical Group Conspired Against Chiropractors." The New York Times.

August 28, 1987. Accessed March 28, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/29/us/us

judge-finds- medical-group- conspired-against- chiropractors.html.

"White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy." WHCCAMP.

Accessed April 2, 2016. http://whccamp.hhs.gov/.