Allopathic Medicine History and Cancer Care

Allopathic medicine is the term that is used to describe the type of medicine that most people are familiar with, and may also be described as conventional medicine, traditional medicine, or Western medicine. The term is often used to contrast common practices with those of "alternative" medicine or homeopathy.

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

In recent years, many practitioners have begun complementing standard medicine with alternative medicine—a practice that has been coined "complementary" medicine or "integrative" medicine.

What is the history of alternative vs allopathic medicine and how has it changed over time, what is happening in present-day medicine, and how can these practices be integrated into medical care, such as in the care of people with cancer?

What Is Allopathic Medicine

Allopathic medicine refers to the practice of traditional or 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 which has looked at the role of alternative medicine as a "complement" to allopathic medicine, but the 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.


The term allopathic medicine was coined in the 1800s to differentiate two types of medicine. Homeopathy was on one side and was 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 that time, the term allopathic medicine was often used in a derogatory sense and 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.

Present Day

As noted, at the present time, the term allopathic medicine is not used in a derogatory way and instead describes current Western medicine. Most physicians are considered allopathic providers, and medical insurance, in general, only covers these types of providers. Other terms which are often used interchangeably with allopathic medicine include:

  • Conventional medicine
  • Traditional Western medicine
  • Orthodox medicine
  • Mainstream medicine
  • Biomedicine
  • Evidence-based medicine (In actuality, an alternative medicine approach could be considered evidence-based if significant research has evaluated its efficacy. For example, if acupuncture was shown in a credible double-blind controlled trial to relieve a particular type of pain, then acupuncture for that pain would fit under the criteria of evidence-based medicine).

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

  • Alternative medicine
  • Eastern medicine
  • Chinese medicine
  • Homeopathy

Allopathic versus Alternative Medicine 

In general, in the current climate of medicine in the United States, allopathic practitioners tend to look down on alternative medicine practitioners and vice versa. Thankfully this is beginning to change.

More and more physicians are finding that alternative practices may be beneficial to patients suffering from a variety of symptoms, especially chronic medical conditions that lack a "quick fix" with a pill or procedure.

Likewise, many alternative practitioners realize that there is clearly a role for allopathic medicine. If your appendix is inflamed and getting ready to burst, both allopathic and alternative practitioners would want a good surgeon (an allopathic practitioner).

Where the lines get fuzzy is when it comes to symptoms. A 2017 study in Brazil of two different regions emphasized that both sides of medicine can be helpful and that it may depend on the diagnosis.

In this setting, in which both types of practitioners were present, allopathic providers tended to care for people with conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other conditions in which we have evidence-based studies showing a benefit.

On the other hand, alternative practitioners tended to care for people with conditions such as general aches and pain, flu symptoms, and colds. Many of these conditions are those in which traditional Western medicine has relatively little to offer, and can in fact when used inappropriately (think: antibiotics for viral infections) cause more harm than good.

In the U.S., we are now seeing allopathic and alternative medicine combined as a way to both treat a condition and help people cope with the symptoms: integrative medicine.

Integrative Medicine Is Combining East and West

The current trend of combining allopathic medicine for the treatment of conditions and alternative therapies for the treatment of symptoms is now available in many clinics and major medical centers in the United States, and has been coined "integrative medicine." In this practice, patients theoretically receive the benefit of the best of both worlds, though conventional medicine remains the mainstay of treatment.

Integrative Cancer Care as an Example 

Integrative care—using the combination of both Western medicine and alternative medicine—is practiced in many cancer centers across the U.S. Allopathic medicine—treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and others—are being used to treat cancer, but "alternative methods" such as acupuncture and meditation are added in to help patients cope with the side effects of cancer and its treatments.

Some of these integrative methods which are being used in large cancer centers include:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is the practice of placing needles along meridians (the body's energy fields) in order to balance energy.
  • Massage therapy: Massage has been found to have some general benefits, as well as benefits which specifically help cancer patients.
  • Meditation: Both self-directed and guided meditation and/or prayer have been studied in clinical trials as a method of relaxation and way to reduce intruding thoughts that interfere with mindfulness.
  • Reiki
  • Yoga: There are several types of yoga, with hatha yoga being the type most commonly practiced. It involves physical movements and poses thought to help balance the spirit. Medically, yoga appears to increase flexibility, reduce pain, and increase both energy levels and a sense of calmness.
  • Healing touch: Healing touch is a practice in which a practitioner moves her hands over a patient's body in an attempt to facilitate well-being and healing.

Other forms of alternative therapy include:

Pet therapy: As with music therapy, pet therapy is entering hospitals, and some oncologists have even listed pet therapy as helpful "treatments" for people with cancer.

Art therapy and music therapy are also alternative treatment. Art therapy is something anyone can do at home with a few watercolors and a piece of paper, but more cancers centers are offering classes, like art, music therapy can instill a sense of calm. Additionally, studies are finding that music may have other functions, perhaps even boosting up the body's T-cells, a part of the immune system which fights cancer.

Lastly, Qigong is a practice of using meditation and controlled breathing in order to balance energy in the body that is another notable alternative therapy.

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