The phrase "alternative medicine" means any healing or preventive health practice that falls outside the mainstream of Western medicine -- including homeopathy.
But the term "alternative medicine" has generally been replaced by the phrase "integrative medicine" to illustrate that many "alternative" treatments are in fact used simultaneously, or integrated, with conventional medicine. Holistic medicine is another commonly used phrase to represent the collection of unconventional therapies.
But what sets homeopathy apart from some other alternative treatments is that it is based upon a complete system of beliefs and practices. Homeopathy relies on the tenet that "like treats like," meaning that in order to cure something, you have to expose the body to small but controlled amounts of the offending substance. The idea is to stimulate the immune system and help the body build its own defenses -- in much the way a vaccine does.
But what makes homeopathy unique is that it takes into account a patient's body, mind, and spirit when seeking both the cause and cure of a health problem -- and no two people are treated exactly alike, even if they have similar symptoms. Holistic medicine as well as integrative medicine work on a similar mind-body-spirit principal, but draw from conventional, or Western, medicine, as well.
The results of individual, controlled clinical trials of homeopathy have been contradictory. In some trials, homeopathy appeared to be no more helpful than a placebo; in other studies, some benefits were seen that were greater than one would expect from a placebo. Systematic reviews have not found homeopathy to be a proven treatment for any particular medical condition. A common theme in the reviews of homeopathy trials is that it is difficult or impossible to draw firm conclusions about whether homeopathy is effective for any single condition.