Key definitions (1)

  • Conventional medicine: mainstream Western medicine, also known as modern medicine.
  • Complementary medicine: non-mainstream practice used alongside with conventional medicine.
  • Alternative medicine: non-mainstream practice used in place of conventional medicine. Sole administration of non-conventional medicine is uncommon.
  • Integrative medicine: a coordinated approach that combines conventional medicine and complementary medicine.


According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institute of Health (NIH), over 30% adults and approximately 12% children use non-conventional medical approaches.1 Although not a mainstream approach, complementary medicine has gained increasing popularity and inspired much research, especially in pain management, relief of cancer symptoms, and sustaining healthy lifestyles.1 Popular complementary approaches include the use of natural products (such as fish oil, ginseng and probiotics) and the use of mind-body practices (such as massage, chiropractic manipulation, deep breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation).(2) An integrative approach, combining both conventional medicine and the complementary medicine, becomes the new trend.

Georganne Derick, MS, is a registered Medical Herbalist and Nutrition and Health Coach. About 6 years ago, Geo was first invited to Johns Hopkins as a guest speaker for a talk on Native Americans and their medicine at the Master of Liberal Arts Program, after which she was invited by the Odyssey program to offer lectures and workshops. Constantly receiving good turnout and reviews, Geo now regularly offers credit-bearing classes at Johns Hopkins over summer terms (A beautiful Medicine and Edible Pharmacopeia) and intercessions (B’More: Integrative Medicine). Geo shares her insights into the complementary and integrative medical field with us in an interview.

Growing up in a family of pharmacists, Geo was introduced to the healing power of plants and fascinated by the plant world early on in life. She received an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology with an interest in medical anthropology. However, her career as herbalist did not start until she was in her 50s. “I didn’t think I would make a living working with plants and I did other things until I was about 48 years old” said Geo, “I was very homesick for the plant world and gardening.” Geo started her herbal work part-time in addition to managing her family company and became a full-time herbalist after 2008, realizing this career is her true passion.

Geo praised the merits of modern medicine in tackling emergency medical conditions, but also pointed out that it did not always solve the problem. Geo stated: “Most of the healthcare issues today are related to lifestyle problems.” Modern medicine is limited in its prevention and amelioration of lifestyle related issues, such as weak immunity and obesity. Moreover, synthetic medicine may not be the best solution since they do pose safety problems. “Any problem I’ve ever had in my own body has become more complicated by the treatments so I was not enamored with the things I encountered in the [conventional] medical world,” said Geo, “many synthetic foods, which we’ve created since the 1940s, are turning out to be poisons to the body. We thought they were safe and we are finding out that they are not. The same is true with our synthetic chemicals and synthetic medicines. The Americans who embrace totally synthetic medicine, pharmaceutical drugs, and synthetic foods and fast foods are some of the sickest civilized people in the world.”

In contrast to modern medicine, complementary medicine mainly utilizes natural products. “Traditional medicine is full of holistic support and nourishment that really heals the body,” said Geo. Many in the Western world doubt the effectiveness and trustworthiness of natural, plant-based products. Geo emphasized that “if traditional medicine [what we know consider complementary] did not work, we would not be here as a species because it was all we ever had on the planet up until 1945 and moving forward.” Research on complementary medicine has been conducted, but results have rarely been publicized. Geo stated: “we are finding out that there is actually more scientific research that supports what happens at the pharmacological level with natural medicine and plant medicine, than there is around synthetic medicine.”

Another issue with conventional medicine is its cost. By 2016, the U.S. national annual healthcare expenditure reached $3.35 trillion.3 “We spend twice what everyone else spends on healthcare all over the world and we rank 50th in healthcare outcomes” noted Geo. Part of the reason modern medicine was so expensive concerns pharmaceutical companies and their marketing strategies. Geo said: “There is much more money involved in the pharmaceutical world. It’s because they are making something that doesn’t biodegrade, that lasts a long time, and then they are selling for really expensive prices in this country. They are married to the political world and the insurance.”

Another benefit of complementary medical approaches is the affordability. “The world of plant medicine, traditional medicine is not big money. So we don’t [spend] the money to influence people’s belief system.” However, the downside to this is that many complementary and integrative centers struggle financially.

In addition, by utilizing more natural product, complementary medicine may be more sustainable and environmentally friendly than modern approaches. “We have created a lot of problems when we begin trying to control the natural world, haven’t we?” asked Geo. She said: “We are using up our pollinators, our topsoil is nearly gone, our water is poisoned everywhere. We are part of the natural world and we need to understand that we are part of the family of that world; we are not the God of that world.” The key here is to coordinate modern technology and natural practices.

In many cultures all over the world, integrative approaches have been successfully adopted. Fortunately, the field of modern medicine and that of complementary medicine have starting looking into each other. Many universities and healthcare facilities have started to offer integrative medicine. Hopefully modern medicine and complementary medicine would further their communication and cooperation.


Geo’s Tips on Getting Complementary Medicine and Improving Health

  • Many products on the market are not regulated in this country so it is important to find trust worthy brands and stores. Many practitioners have outlined brands and stores they trust on their website. Geo has also compiled a list on her website.
  • Always look for an expiration date on a natural product, because if there isn’t one it might not be fresh anymore and you can’t trust it.
  • Stay alkalinized: drinking herbal tea throughout the day, eat colorful vegetables and less starchy food, consume white meat (chicken and fish), eat nuts and seeds, and eat eggs.
  • Getting fish oil into your diet if you don’t eat fish regularly. It keeps your brain healthy.



1.) Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name? NCCIH, 2016. Available at: Accessed March 16, 2017.

2.) National Health Interview Survey 2012 | NCCIH. 2016. Available at: March 16, 2017.

3.) Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar A. $10,345 per person: U.S. health care spending reaches new peak. PBS NewsHour. 2016. Accessed March 17, 2017. Available at:


Posted by Cindy Yuan

Cindy is a sophomore double majoring in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of the HMR marketing team and a writer of the HMR Domestic Health section. Although not a pre-medical student, Cindy possesses genuine interest in healthcare in the U.S. and around the world. Cindy hopes to learn more about the healthcare industry and to bridge the gap in healthcare. Cindy is a research assistant at the JHU Visual Thinking lab and is currently working on research of visual representation. In terms of extracurricular activities, Cindy is the Programming Chair of Chinese Student Association, enjoys learning to dance with the Eclectics, and is a mentor at the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

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