Selecting a Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health Practitioner

More people are looking into complementary, alternative and/or integrative health treatments to treat back and neck pain. To help you understand the differences and potential similarities between the terms, keep in mind:
Woman looking at information on her tablet

  • If an alternative (not mainstream) practice is combined with convention (mainstream) medicine, it is termed complementary or integrative health care.
  • When used instead of or replaces conventional medical care, it is termed alternative.
  • However, the terms (complementary, alternative, integrative) are often used interchangeably.
  • Sometimes the acronym CAM is simply used, which means Complementary Alternative Medicine.

Choosing the best practitioner for the treatment of your spine problem (eg, osteoarthritis, chronic back pain, whiplash) is as important as your choice of medical physician or chiropractor. You want to find an alternative or complementary/ integrative professional who is highly trained, licensed, experienced in treating your particular diagnosis, and a practitioner who makes you feel comfortable, and is willing to take time to answer all your questions.

So, where do you start?
A good place to start may be by asking your primary health care provider (eg, primary care physician, chiropractor) for a referral. Other sources include:

  • Your insurance provider
  • Check your state’s licensing boards or regulatory agencies
  • Local hospital

Credentialing, licensing and certifying are terms you may come across when learning about a particular CAM profession or practitioner. Credentials can be viewed as a catch-all term to include the practitioner’s education and where and what he/she is allowed to practice. Certification in a particular field of practice (eg, acupuncture) is often needed before a state and/or county license is issued allowing the professional to treat people. However, being certified and/or licensed does not guarantee that the practitioner is qualified.

Check your state’s mandatory licensure process for the type of complementary, alternative or integrative professional you are interested in seeing. Many states require the practitioner to register specific information about their education, graduation, training, and continuing education credits. Furthermore, your state agency can provide information that explains exactly what services the practitioner is allowed to provide (eg, provide dietary supplements).

As you review the education and qualifications of a potential practitioner, consider:

  • Where did the practitioner receive their education?
  • Did they graduate from a certified program of study in their area of specialty?
  • Where all components related to training met?
  • Did the practitioner complete advanced training in their field?
  • Is the practitioner a member of professional societies or organizations?
  • Does the practitioner regularly advance their training (eg, continuing education)?
  • How long have they been in practice?
  • If the treatment covered by insurance?
  • Is the practitioner willing to work with your health insurance provider?
  • What does the treatment cost if not covered by health insurance?

Plan for Your Visit
Although the treatment or therapy the complementary, alternative or integrative practitioner provides is considered non-medical, you still need to share all your medical history, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, allergies, treatments you’ve received (eg, surgery, spinal injections), and vitamins and supplements you take.

Be sure to share the names and contact information of your primary care physician or internal medicine doctor, or the doctor who referred you. It is very important to keep your regular physician informed about all treatments or therapies you receive.

Listed below are additional resources recommended by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Updated on: 08/23/16
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