The Health Consequences of Competing Conventional and Alternative Definitions of Health

  • Stephen John Fulder


Conventional medicine defines health as either absence of disease, or various Utopian definitions, such as “a state of complete well-being”. The definitions of the absence of disease is the basis of all therapeutic interactions in modern medicine. These definitions have led to a frustrating lack of familiarity with health itself and its manifestations. It can have drastic effects in practice on our experience of medicine and of illness. Various other views have arisen in response to the overly mechanistic view of the human being. In particular, the salutogenic view of Antonovsky sees health as a social phenomena. This has led to the field of health promotion, with mixed results.

Alternative medicine defines health more openly and more vitalistically. It is based on a rich and ancient source of experience into the nature of health and the process of becoming more healthy or more sick. Most alternative therapies see the individual and his life’s journey as the key to health or sickness, health itself is definable only in relation to context — the individual at that moment in his life. There is also an element of the ‘will to be well’, the self-healing powers, which are respected and affirmed. Models of health and disease are more in tune with subjective experience, there is therefore a strong biographical aspect both to treatment and to research in alternative medicine.

The alternative definitions are more vitalistic and as such run counter to the mechanistic world view. This can create a real struggle for patients, for example in the treatment of chronic diseases. The mechanistic view would propose toxic treatments which target specific body processes. The vitalistic view will propose health building attitudes and activities, such as a more harmonious, and balanced life. The patient will often try to do both together and this can create conflicts. Besides, alternative medicine can itself at times be mechanistic, such as in chiropractic or formula acupuncture, and the reverse is also true, such as in the typical caring and listening family practitioner. It is helpful to explore these themes so that both patients and practitioners can learn how to negotiate within the various models of healing available in our current society.


Alternative Medicine Modern Medicine Alternative Definition Complementary Medicine Conventional Medicine 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Rosenberg, C.E. (1977) The therapeutic revolution: medicine, meaning and social change in the nineteenth century. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 20: 485–506.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Pietroni, P. (1988) Alternative Medicine, R. Soc. Arts. J., 136:791–801.Google Scholar
  3. Pietroni, P. (1990) The Greening of Medicine, London: Gollancz.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    British Medical Association (1993) New approaches to good practice, Oxford. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Cameron-Blackie, G. (1993). Complementary therapies in the NHS. Birmingham. National Association of Health Authorities.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Fisher, P. and Ward, A. (1994). Complementary medicine in Europe. British Medical Journal, 309: 107–11.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6.
    Eisenberg, D.M., Kessler, R.C., Foster, C., Norlock, F.E., Calkins, D.R. and Delbanco, T.L. (1993). Unconventional medicine in the United States. New Eng. J. Med., 328: 246–252.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 7.
    Reilly, D. (1983) Young doctors views on alternative medicine, Br Med. J., 287: 337–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    Perkin, M.R., Pearcy, R.M. and Fraser, J.S. (1994). A comparison of the attitudes shown by General Practitioners, hospital doctors and medical students towards alternative medicine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 87: 23–5Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Budd, C., Fisher, B., Parrinder, D. and Price, L. (1990). A model of co-operation between complementary and allopathic medicine in a primary care setting. British Journal of General Practice, 40: 376–8.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Richardson, J. (1995). Complementary therapies on the NHS: the experience of a new service. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 3: 153–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 10.
    Himmel, W., Schulte, M. and Kochen, M.M. (1993). Complementary medicine: are patients’ expectations being met by their general practitioners? British Journal of General Practice, 43: 232–5.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. 11.
    Bensoussan, A. (1991) The Vital Meridian: a Modern Exploration of Acupuncture. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Fulder, S. (1996) The Handbook of Complementary Medicine, Oxford. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Illich, I. (1976). Limits to Medicine, Harmondsworth. PenguinGoogle Scholar
  16. 14.
    Siegel, B. (1992) Peace, Love and Healing Harper Collins, New York.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Engel, G.L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196:129–36.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 16.
    McKewan, T. (1976). The role of medicine, London. Nuffield Provincial Hospital Trust.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    Pappas, G., Queen, S., Hadden, W. and Fisher, G. (1993) The increasing disparity in mortality between socioeconomic groups in the United States, 1960 and 1986. new Eng. J. Med. 329: 103–9.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 18.
    Capra, F. (1983). The turning point, London. Fontana.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    Gopel, E. (1993) Human health and philosophies of life In: Lafailte, R. and Fulder S. (eds.) Towards a New Science of Health London. Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. 20.
    Antonovsky, A. (1981). Health, stress and coping, San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    Antonovsky, A. (1994) A social critique of the ‘well-being’ movement. Advances, 10: 6–12.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    Dossey, L. (1982). Space, time and medicine, Boulder. Shambala.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    LeShan, L. (1979) Cancer as Turning Point, New York. Dutton.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
    Sheehy, G. (1985) Pathfinders, New York. Bantam.Google Scholar
  27. 25.
    Rijke, R. (1993) Health in medical science In: Lafaille, R. and Fulder, S.J. Towards a new science of health London. Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. 26.
    Cousins, N. (1979) The anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient, New York. Norton.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    Fulder, S. (1993) The Book of Ginseng and Other Herbs for Vitality, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.Google Scholar
  30. 28.
    Department of Health (1992). Compendium of health statistics London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Office of Population Census and Surveys. (1995). Social Trends. London. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    Barsky, A. (1988). The paradox of health. New England Journal of Medicine, February 18, 414-8.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen John Fulder
    • 1
  1. 1.Consultancy and Research on BiomedicineClil, D.N. OshratIsrael

Personalised recommendations