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PHARMACY AND PHARMACEUTICAL SCIENCES: Complimentary and Alternative Medicine

Complimentary and Alternative Medicine


There is no universal definition of what Complimentary and Alternative medicine means.

The NHS defines it as 'treatments that fall outside of mainstream healthcare'.  This definition is very broad and covers a wide range of treatments from acupunture to chiropractice.

The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) uses this distinction:

  • When a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it's considered "complementary".
  • When a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, it's considered "alternative".

In this definition whether a treatment is complimentary or alternative depends on what other treatments are being used with it - rather than on what the treatment actually is.

Another term you may come across is Integrative medicine - this combines mainstream treatments with complimentary medicine and advocates a holistic approach to patient care whcih also considers lifestyle and spiritual matters.

Statutory professional regulation ensures that conventional medicine is conducted by properly qualified practitioners who adhere to a set of standards or a code of practice.

Only 2 complementary and alternative treatments – osteopathy and chiropractic – are regulated in the same way.

There's no statutory professional regulation of any other CAM practitioners.

This means:

  • it's legal for anyone to practise the treatment, even if they have no or limited formal qualifications or experience
  • these practitioners are not legally required to adhere to any standards of practice or to join an association or register

Professional associations and accredited registers for CAMs

Many CAMs have voluntary registers or professional associations that practitioners can join if they choose.

Usually, these associations or registers demand that practitioners hold certain qualifications and agree to practise to a certain standard.

Some organisations have registers accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA).  This means they have met the standards for accredited registers outlined by the PSA.

Organisations with PSA-accredited voluntary registers include:

Information on CAM Practices

This section has links to organisations associated with the practice of CAM in the UK. When using these websites to find out more about a particular practice remember to evaulate any evidence presented carefully. There are links to some good evidence sources at the bottom of this page.

General Sources of Information



Ayurvedic Medicine

Chinese Medicine

Herbal Medicine


Checking the Evidence Base

As with all medical interventions it's important to check what evidence is available when considering recommending a treatment to a patient.

NICE evidence search lets you search by treatment or condition - and gives quick access to guidance and available evidence from over 800 orgaisations.

AMED is a dedicated index of research in the area of complimentary and allied health - a good place to start with research into these treaments.

Drug Interactions

It's also important to consider how complimentary medicines might interact with treatments that a patient is already taking.  Certain herbal supplements can make conventional drug treatments less effective.