As a physician, I cringe when I hear people say things like:

“Western doctors only focus on Band-Aid solutions! They never treat the root cause of a problem, just the symptoms!” 

…because, that’s not accurate. The incredible majority of health-care providers are well-intentioned and have your best interests at heart. They get up every morning to help you be the best you can be. 

There are many different types of training, styles of practicing medicine, and many different philosophies. Thus, an individual provider may have a different focus depending on how they were taught and what their beliefs are. 

It can be confusing, even for a medical professional like me, to remember all of the groups and subgroups in the industry. 

But it’s important to have a basic understanding of what’s what, who’s who, and what all those letters really mean. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list or in-depth description of any one style, but will guide you if you want to learn more about any particular philosophy. 

Here’s a little glossary of major terms to know (no jargon! just plain English) so that you are in the know. 

Conventional Medicine. Traditional Medicine. Allopathic Medicine. Osteopathic Medicine. Western Medicine. 

If you go to a doctor’s office for an annual checkup, or go to the hospital for surgery, or go to a pharmacy to fill a prescription for antibiotics, or get a shot to prevent the measles, you are likely experiencing conventional medicine. 

It’s a bit misleading that “Western Medicine” is often referred to as “Traditional Medicine,” because it’s only really been “around” for a couple hundred years. Other types of medicine such as Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine have been practiced for over 5,000 years — so, chronologically speaking, Eastern care providers have been preventing illnesses and helping sick people much longer than us Westerners! 

Physicians who practice Western Medicine are generally called MDs (medical doctors) or DOs (osteopathic doctors.) The education is similar, with MDs having perhaps more exposure to specialty medicine and DOs having some additional training in physical manipulation. 

Physician Assistants (PAs) and Nurse Practitioners (ARNPs, FNPs and CNPs) are also considered providers. Some NPs take a pathway with additional doctoral training that leads to a DNP degree. 

MDs, PAs and NPs attend highly-specialized training programs, and must adhere to very strict standards when practicing. 

Chiropractors (DC) are also part of the healthcare team and, increasingly, the larger multi-specialty groups have them as part of the medical staff. 

There’s a stereotype about Western Medicine — that it just fixes “symptoms” but doesn’t address the deeper issues that created those symptoms in the first place. 

That’s not exactly true. 

If you rush into an emergency room with a broken arm, your Western doctor is going to fix your broken arm by setting it in a cast — not sit you down for a deep conversation about all of the emotional, spiritual and lifestyle factors that may have led to you breaking your arm. That much is true! 

But more and more, primary care physicians and even some specialists are taking a broader look at health and wellness. They might take a functional medicine approach to look for interactions among genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that influence you. It’s tough to accomplish in one office visit and you will likely have some “homework” to do, as well as follow-up care. 

This approach is excellent for treating chronic pain issues, as well as feelings of tiredness, fogginess, headaches, and other ongoing issues that don’t seem to have just “one” root cause. More information is available at

Alternative Medicine. Complementary Medicine. Naturopathic Medicine. Chinese Medicine. Homeopathic Medicine. Eastern Medicine. 

Eastern Medicine is a broad term that can refer to a wide range of healing practices, many of which are rooted in traditions that are 2,000 – 5,000 years old. 

Two major types of Eastern Medicine practitioners are Naturopathic Doctors (NDs or DNMs) and Doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCMs). 

Many people think that these kinds of practitioners just give out herbal tea and neck massages, but that is not accurate. 

Naturopathic doctors actually receive some of the same training as Western / Traditional doctors, and they are qualified to provide many (but not all) of the same forms of care. They emphasize prevention, as do most primary care providers, and encourage the individual’s inherent self-healing process. 

For example, Naturopathic doctors can order labs and scans (like blood tests and food panels). They are also trained in pharmacology, and in some states, they can write prescriptions for medications. 

Many people with chronic health issues will seek advice from an “alternative” practitioner. Sometimes, several different types of providers will collaborate on a treatment plan to give a patient the best and most thorough care, possible. 

Not sure what kind of practitioner you’re talking to? 

You can ask questions like… 

-What type of medical school did you attend? 
– Are you a Medical Doctor (MD), Osteopathic Physician (DO), Chiropractor (DC), Nurse Practitioner (NP), Physician’s Assistant (PA), Naturopathic Doctor (ND), or Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)? 
– Are you board-certified in a particular specialty? Which one? 
– Do you practice functional medicine? 
– Are you allowed to prescribe medication? 
– Can you refer me to a [Western / Eastern] care provider, if necessary? 

All of that being said… 

Many are still skeptical of non-Western health practices because there aren’t enough stringent double-blinded, placebo-controlled trials. 

But some Western doctors are becoming certified in Eastern modalities, and vice versa. 

Places like UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine, The Center for Spirituality and Healing at University of Minnesota, and Mayo’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine are blending the boundaries. 

Sometimes wellness takes a village. 

To your health! 

~ Dr. Sue