He added that just as certain procedures in conventional medicine, such as stents for blocked blood vessels, warrant further study, doctors must also scrutinize alternative techniques.
"Some of these invasive procedures of traditional medicine have not been studied sufficiently, just as some aspects of what we think of as alternative medicine have not been studied definitively," he said.
Still, the past decade has seen a steadily growing acceptance by much of the medical community of complementary approaches to care.
According to a 1997 NIH report, acupuncture is being "widely" practiced -- by thousands of physicians, dentists, acupuncturists and other practitioners -- for various health conditions.
And consumers are taking advantage of the offerings. The 2002 National Health Interview Survey estimates that more than 8 million Americans have used them to treat various ailments such as chronic pain, menopause symptoms and infertility.
The support and demand for acupuncture and other complementary therapies is such that some insurance plans have even begun to cover certain approaches. And major medical institutions, including Duke University and Beth Israel Medical Center, have set up centers to study these nonconventional options.
Ultimately, however, the actual incorporation of these techniques into routine medical care could be hindered by the current structure of the medical system.
"Under our present system, there is enormous pressure on doctors to see as many patients as possible," Dr. Tim said. "So our present discourages a holistic approach. We would need some major changes in our health care system if we want to see more integrative medical care given."
And even proponents of complementary techniques urge patients to be wary of those who promise much, but deliver little.
"I would be wary of any practitioner of complementary medicine who makes overly broad claims in any of these areas," Northrup said. "If someone says I'll do cranio-therapy and it will cure everything, you should be wary."