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Diagnosis & Treatment:

Explained: Holistic vs Modern Western Medicine

Margaux Thieme-Burdette January 27, 2021

When it comes to holistic medicine and approaches to health, confusion abounds. The word “holistic” is scattered across the internet, business storefronts, and packaging, but similar to the terms “natural” or “grass-fed,” its true meaning still eludes us. Consider this your guide to understanding the differences and cutting through the confusion between the modern Western approach and holistic medicine.

Modern Western

Modern Western medicine, a.k.a. allopathic, conventional, mainstream, or bio-medicine, uses a research- and organ systems-based approach to diagnose and treat various specific medical conditions, often using pharmaceutical drugs, radiation, and surgery.

In the modern Western system of medicine, it is common for patients to be referred to specialists—immunologists, neurologists, endocrinologists, gastroenterologists—whose expert knowledge of specific organs and body systems allows them to target treatment in those areas.

Healthcare professionals include:

  • Medical doctors and specialists (MD)
  • Osteopathic doctors (DO)
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Physician’s assistants

Modern Western medicine excels in:

  • Acute and emergency care
  • Diagnosing disease and postponing progression
  • Symptom relief
  • Diagnostic tools and testing
  • Pharmaceuticals and drug interactions
  • Surgical procedures
  • Clinical trials


Holistic medicine, which may also be referred to as traditional, alternative, complementary, or Eastern medicine, recognizes health as a combination of mind, body, and spirit. Holistic medicine focuses on bio-individual nutrition and lifestyle interventions, mental health support, social relationships, and environmental health in the prevention and treatment of health conditions.

This approach tends to fall outside the paradigm of modern Western healthcare, as it involves whole body support and slow healing, with an emphasis on natural therapies. Holistic doctors and practitioners may use herbs, supplements, homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, manual medicine, neural retraining, biofeedback, and other traditional and modern therapies in addition to pharmaceuticals and surgery to treat their patients.

The term “holistic” casts a wide net—health philosophies and approaches to healing vary depending on the field or system of medicine, as well as the individual’s education and personal experiences.

Healthcare professionals include:

  • Naturopathic doctors (ND)
  • Functional medicine doctors and practitioners
  • Integrative medicine doctors and practitioners
  • Osteopathic doctors (DO)
  • Medical doctors (MD), nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and other professionals trained in functional or integrative medicine
  • Other practitioners fluent in systems of medicine such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

There are many crossover healthcare professionals. One of the most well-known is osteopathic doctors (DO), who receive equivalent education to MDs but are trained in a more “whole body” approach. They use hands-on manipulation of the musculoskeletal system, among other therapies, to treat patients. Other holistic professionals may have first completed modern Western medical school and been subsequently educated in various forms of holistic medicine or holistic therapies. They may not practice within the modern Western medical model due to its constraints; in that case, their services are not typically covered by insurance.

Holistic medicine excels in:

  • Preventive care and slow healing
  • Undiagnosable or complex chronic conditions
  • Symptom relief
  • Identifying root cause
  • Functional lab testing and ranges
  • Supplements, herbs, homeopathy, food as medicine
  • Assistance in implementing lifestyle change


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  1. Article Sources and Footnotes
    1. Wiseman, N. (2004).  Designations of MedicinesEvidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal, 1(3): 327–329. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/neh053.

    2. Green, A., Carrillo, J., Betancourt, J. (2002). Why the disease-based model of medicine fails our patientsThe Western Journal of Medicine, 176(2): 141–143.

    3. What Is Osteopathic Medicine? American Osteopathic Association.