The major difference between alternative medicine, or what I'll call holistic health, and Western medicine, is in approach.
A Western doctor, or MD, sees his duty as searching out disease, diagnosing it, and treating it. If he does that correctly and effectively, he's done his job. Most often, this means the doctor prescribing a pharmaceutical drug or a surgical procedure to remedy the situation. The patients is passive in all of this.
A holistic health practitioner sees her duty as an educator and a facilitator. She feels that the body can heal itself, and it doesn't necessarily need outside influences (drugs, surgery) to heal from an illness or to prevent an illness. In holistic health, the patient is an active participant.
This is the best and the worst thing about holistic health! The patient is actively involved in the healing process. Everything you know about your body says that this is the right approach. It makes so much sense. That's the good part. The bad thing about this is that it is HARD WORK for the patient. In most cases, the patient must make changes to their lifestyle. Change your diet, do more exercise, stop using sugar, do these stretches, stop negative thoughts, meditate twice a day, etc.
Making lifestyle changes is immensely difficult. The only time it's easy is when you are faced with a life-threatening disease. When you find out you have lung cancer, it's pretty easy to quit smoking. However, it's far too late by that time. Lifestyle changes need to come before the illness becomes manifest.
Let's examine one of the big differences between holistic health and Western medicine: holism versus reductionism.
Holistic versus Reductionist
This is a major shift in perspective. Taking a holistic perspective means that you cannot understand a single problem with a single part of the human body without looking at the whole person. We use the short-hand "mind, body, spirit" to refer to the whole person.
This is not how a Western doctor is taught to see a patient. He sees the patient as the disease. "This is an epileptic," it is not a whole person who has epilepsy. He feels that he can administer a drug or perform a surgery that will cure a person's liver without making any difference to the rest of the person. Of course, this is never possible, so when the inevitable "complications" arise, the Western doctor deals with those one at a time, often causing additional problems for the person, whether in body, mind or spirit.
Even those three parts of the person are treated by separate people in Western society. The body is the domain of the medical doctor. The mind is the domain of the psychiatrist. Spirit is left to the priest, rabbi or pastor. There is no overlap in roles, except for referrals from one to the other. In our bodies, of course, there is tremendous overlap. A loss of connection to God or the universe will cause no end of mental and physical problems. Mental stress causes many physical diseases, as we well know. Who can coordinate between these in the Western system? No one. Problems falling "through the cracks" between mind, body and spirit is a common failure of Western medicine.
A holistic practitioner understands the interconnections between mind, body and spirit. They work on the connections, and, although the practitioner may not be an expert in all three, they focus on the overlaps rather than ignoring them.
In my opinion, a holistic approach is better in almost every case for almost every person. Understanding the linkages between mind, body and spirit is essential to understanding how to stay well and how to heal. Western medicine can play a part within the scope of holistic health by offering emergency solutions to problems that arise quickly and need to be fixed immediately.