Understanding Patient Choices – Exploring Complementary Treatments in Healthcare

The availability and utilization of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities have grown steadily in recent decades. This growth reflects patients’ expanding interest in holistic models of care focused on whole-person health. To provide truly patient-centered care, healthcare systems must understand what drives patients to explore CAM options and integrate services to meet patient needs. Examining a few key factors behind this trend can shed light on how to thoughtfully support patients’ treatment decisions.

Desire for Holistic Wellness

One of the primary motivations patients cite for using CAM therapies is the desire for overall holistic wellness. Rather than just easing isolated symptoms, many CAM disciplines take a systems-based approach that addresses the mind, body, and spirit as interconnected.

For example, research shows that practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong, and meditation provide physical benefits such as increased flexibility, strength, and balance. Simultaneously, they reduce psychological stress, anxiety, and depression while also providing spiritual nourishment.

Side Effect Concerns

Another common reason patients give for utilizing CAM treatments is wanting to avoid side effects from conventional medical therapies. Prescription medications, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and surgery can all cause unpleasant or even serious side effects.

For example, cancer patients commonly use complementary approaches like acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and medical cannabis to help manage side effects like pain, nausea, neuropathy, and fatigue from the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation. Such side effects negatively affect quality of life. CAM options help counterbalance side effects and restore a sense of control.

Preference for Natural Approaches

Many patients also gravitate toward complementary disciplines simply because they align with personal preferences for gentle, natural methods of healing and symptom management. CAM treatments derive from longstanding health practices often used for millennia.

Patients who value holistic lifestyles and using food, plants, movement therapies, mind-body practices, and other natural interventions to nurture wellbeing often view CAM as a logical extension of their beliefs. Using meditation to reduce anxiety or ginger tea to ease nausea resonates with these individuals more than taking prescription anti-anxiety drugs or anti-nausea medications.

Frustration with Conventional Limitations

Furthermore, many patients turn to complementary medicine out of frustration when conventional treatments cannot deliver adequate relief for their health conditions. Those battling chronic pain, depression, nausea, fatigue, and other issues that persist despite medication or standard care explore alternatives like acupuncture, biofeedback, or medical marijuana.

Cannabis, for instance, remains federally prohibited but legal medically in a growing number of states. According to the doctors at Utah’s KindlyMD, those who get a medical marijuana card report benefits for conditions poorly responsive to other options, like chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and PTSD. For those who do not achieve results from conventional avenues, CAM therapies provide additional paths to explore.

Desire for Individualized Care

Connected to this point, patients frequently cite valuing the highly personalized approach of many CAM disciplines. No two patients are identical. At its best, complementary medicine evaluates each patient’s unique circumstances, challenges, medical history, environment, beliefs, and goals to create customized treatment plans.

For example, one back pain patient may benefit most from physical therapy, massage, yoga therapy, and learning proper body mechanics. But another may achieve better outcomes with acupuncture, osteopathic manipulation, therapeutic breathing techniques, and dietary changes. The goal is choosing the combination of therapies most likely to address contributing factors and empower healing in each individual.


Patients choose to explore complementary health approaches for diverse reasons – pursuing holistic wellness, avoiding medication side effects, aligning with natural philosophies, frustration with conventional limitations, and desiring individualized care. As more evidence emerges about CAM benefits and risks, striking the right balance will be key.

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