Allopathic Medicine: Meaning and History

Allopathic medicine is another term for conventional Western medicine. In contrast to alternative medicine, allopathy uses mainstream medical practices like diagnostic blood work, prescription drugs, and surgery.

An allopathic doctor is typically an M.D., while osteopaths (D.O.), chiropractors (D.C.), and Oriental medical doctors (O.M.D.) usually fall under the alternative medicine umbrella.

This article discusses the history of allopathic medicine, its uses, and its limitations. It also looks at the philosophical differences between conventional and alternative medicine and how these diverse disciplines complement one another.

Group of surgeons with instrument tray
John Crawford (Photographer) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

What Is Allopathic Medicine?

Allopathic medicine refers to the practice of conventional Western medicine. The term allopathic medicine is most often used to contrast conventional medicine with alternative medicine or homeopathy.

Complementary medicine is a term for the role alternative medicine plays as a "complement" to allopathic medicine, but this meaning has become obscure in recent years.

Integrative medicine is the term that is being increasingly used to refer to the practice of combining the best of alternative medicine with the best of conventional medicine to manage and reduce the risk of disease.

Allopathic medicine examples include:

History of Allopathy

The term allopathic medicine was coined in the 1800s to differentiate two types of medicine. Homeopathy was on one side, based on the theory that "like cures like." The thought with homeopathy is that very small doses of a substance that cause the symptoms of a disease could be used to alleviate that disease. 

In contrast, allopathic medicine was defined as the practice of using opposites: using treatments that have the opposite effects of the symptoms of a condition.

At the time, the term allopathic medicine was often used in a derogatory sense. It referred to radical treatments such as bleeding people to relieve fever. Over the years this meaning has changed, and now the term encompasses most of the modern medicine in developed countries.

Current Allopathic Practices

Today, allopathic medicine is mainstream medicine. The term is no longer derogatory and instead describes current Western medicine. Most physicians are considered allopathic providers.

Medical insurance covers most types of allopathic care, whereas complementary and alternative medicine is often out-of-pocket costs.

Examples of allopathic medicine include everything from primary care physicians to specialists and surgeons.

Other terms used interchangeably with allopathic medicine include:

  • Conventional medicine
  • Traditional Western medicine
  • Orthodox medicine
  • Mainstream medicine
  • Biomedicine
  • Evidence-based medicine (Alternative medicine modalities can also be evidence-based if significant research has shown it works.)

These allopathic monikers are usually contrasted with practices, such as:

  • Alternative medicine
  • Eastern medicine
  • Folk medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Natural medicine
  • Osteopathic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese medicine

How is Osteopathic Medicine Different than Allopathic?

Osteopathic medicine has a different philosophy on patient care than allopathic medicine. Osteopaths use a “whole person” (holistic) approach, which usually focuses on the relationship between body, mind, and spirit.

Doctors of osteopathy, however, are also trained in allopathic techniques. They can prescribe medication and are usually covered by insurance. In fact, osteopaths typically work alongside conventional doctors in hospitals and medical practices.

The main difference between an M.D. and a D.O. is osteopaths are also trained in osteopathic manipulation. This hands-on technique is used to treat musculoskeletal conditions, which is similar—but not identical—to chiropractic manipulation.

While there is overlap between the two, osteopathic and allopathic disciplines are trained in different medical schools with varying course requirements and certifications.


Allopathic vs. Alternative Medicine 

In the past, allopathic practitioners tended to look down on alternative medicine practitioners and vice versa. But that is changing as more physicians find alternative practices may be beneficial. This is particularly the case when a patient suffers from a chronic medical condition that lacks a "quick fix" with a pill or procedure.

Likewise, many alternative practitioners realize that there is clearly a role for allopathic medicine. For example, if your appendix is inflamed and getting ready to burst, a holistic doctor would send you to a surgeon, which is an allopathic practitioner.

Research shows both sides of medicine can be helpful, depending on the diagnosis. A 2017 study found allopathic providers tend to care for people with concrete conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Alternative practitioners, on the other hand, tend to treat symptoms, such as pain, congestion, and constipation.

Today, allopathic and alternative medicine are being combined as a way to both treat conditions and relieve symptoms. This is known as integrative medicine.

What Is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine practices aim to provide the best of both worlds. Conventional medicine is the primary treatment technique and alternative therapies complement patient care.

Integrative care is commonly seen in many cancer centers. Allopathic medicine treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are used to treat cancer. Alternative methods like acupuncture, meditation, and massage are used to treat the side effects of cancer treatments.

Examples of alternative methods often used along with allopathic medicine include:

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By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."