Complementary Therapies – Main Menu Choice or Condiments?

I am very privileged to be employed as a complementary therapist working in palliative care within the NHS. As part of a multidisciplinary team where complementary therapies are well regarded and fully integrated into the routine care for patients, it is easy to forget that in other areas of the NHS there is much less understanding of therapies and more specifically, their benefits.

Following a meeting with some nursing colleagues, an interesting perspective regarding the term “complementary” was raised and it has really got me thinking. During our discussions the general advice was to try and avoid using the term complementary as much as possible when putting forward a proposal for an upcoming project as this tended to detract from the significance of our work. Many of our clinical and management colleagues apparently regarding complementary therapies as just being “touchy feely” pampering sessions rather than playing an important role in supporting and contributing to patient wellbeing. In response to this I’d like to open a debate about how relevant the term “complementary therapies” is in a health care setting? Is it perhaps time to find a more appropriate umbrella term for the therapies we offer……?

Across the therapy industry the term complementary is now embedded in our terminology – complementary therapies being routinely classified as “therapeutic interventions complementing allopathic medicine, working alongside medicine to enhance/complement the benefits for patients” We have training courses using the term complementary e.g. HNC in complementary therapies, we refer to CAM – Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and there are numerous professional organisations for complementary therapies.

BUT….here’s an interesting thought. How would you describe disciplines such as physiotherapy, dietetics, occupational therapy, counselling? Should these therapeutic interventions not also be defined as complementary? after all they are frequently used or prescribed alongside medication, referrals being made by doctors and nursing staff. Yet within the NHS these disciplines, unlike complementary therapies, are viewed as having a legitimate function and have the respect of their co-workers across the NHS.

Taking a step back from the definition of complementary therapy that is routinely trotted out, how would you define our role as therapists? In fact, it is NOT about providing therapies to complement conventional medicine but is instead about using therapeutic interventions to support and encourage the physical and psychological / emotional wellbeing of our clients. By portraying our function as being in some way subservient to medicine and playing only a supporting role rather than providing significant beneficial interventions that can contribute to health and wellbeing, then we are doing ourselves no favours. Yes, our therapies can and do work effectively alongside conventional Western medicine and neither should be regarded as mutually exclusive, therapies are not a replacement for medicine but are highly effective interventions in their own right. So how do we go about altering the mindset of our clinical colleagues?

We know that language shapes our thoughts and emotions, determining the perception of reality. By changing the label used to describe our work can we effectively begin the process of altering how our clinical colleagues perceive therapies?

The question then must be what label do we apply to our therapies that truly conveys the nature of our work? Yes, there are the reflexologists, massage therapists, aromatherapists, but most therapists are trained in multiple disciplines, so we do need to find an appropriate all-encompassing label. We could of course opt for the well-recognised term holistic, which does cover the underlying principles of complementary therapies but unfortunately is also seen by many in the medical profession as relating to wacky “new age” nonsense…..somewhat ironic when you realise that one of the current trendy “buzz” words in the NHS is to provide a “holistic” experience for patients! Then of course we could label our therapies as being energy therapies but again this creates an image of questionable legitimacy due to the lack of proven science.

After giving this conundrum some thought I do wonder whether we should instead focus on how rather than why we interact with our clients which, when you take an overview is via the senses; Touch – self-explanatory, Hearing - the use of sound,  music, talking, etc., Sight – colour therapy, the colour of our uniforms, how we decorate the therapeutic environment and Smell – aromatherapy.

Should we therefore legitimately call ourselves Sensory Therapists? This label relates to the work that we do across the spectrum of different therapies used and highlights the physiological system that we are interacting with.


In the future could we see the list of allied health professions including sensory therapists alongside physiotherapy, occupational therapy…….?

If I must comply with the NHS need for labels, then I would be very happy to describe myself as being a “sensory therapist” working in palliative care.


I would be interested to hear other therapists’ point of view on this tricky topic.




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