Call it "alternative," "complementary," "integrative" or "holistic" medicine. Whatever name you choose, such nontraditional therapeutic practices as acupuncture, homeopathy and yoga have become increasingly prominent and provocative parts of the U.S. medical landscape. An estimated 50% of all Americans turn to some type of alternative therapy; three-quarters of U.S. medical schools offer courses in the subject; and even flinty-eyed health insurers are starting to pay for visits to your local herbalist or naturopath.
This shift reflects a growing public yearning for gentler, less invasive forms of healing. But unconventional potions and practices afford rich opportunities for quackery. Health-food magazines and websites are filled with ads touting miracle cures that serve only to separate the sick from their money.
The test for any medical treatment is whether it can be shown to be safe, effective and appropriate. That's as true of brain surgery as it is of guided imagery or therapeutic touch. And that's why M.D.s who once scoffed at megavitamins or aromatherapy now comb the latest books and medical journals to learn how to advise patients who are clamoring for alternatives.
The six nontraditional healers on these pages have gone further. They have created new pathways to health while remaining true to the most basic creed of the medical canon: First, do no harm.