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What is Conservative Treatment?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Conservative treatment could be seen as the least aggressive approach to treating a condition, and it’s often contrasted to “aggressive” approaches, which might at first hazard more risk. Doctors take a variety of approaches toward disease and they may favor more conservative or aggressive approaches in general, or they may evaluate potential for cure in each individual case and determine the path of most favorable outcome. The matter can be a little confusing for patients, often accounting for the difference of opinions patients may get when they seek advice from more than one doctor. It’s not as easy for the patient to determine best treatment because he may hear from doctors with different basic approaches.

When people hear conservative treatment discussed, they may automatically think of medical versus surgical. Non-surgeons may favor conservative approaches that are non-surgical. Similarly, surgeons are more likely to recommend a surgical cure. In any individual case there can be strong arguments for both points of view, or sometimes there is no question that one method is better than the other. Some things can’t be addressed surgically, and others things can’t be fixed with only medical treatments. On the other hand, there are so many areas where medical or surgical methods stand in opposition to each other, and some have almost equally beneficial outcomes.

The one thing that can usually be said about a conservative approach is it is least disruptive to the body. Surgery, though it can be curative, disrupts. It has sizable risks of bleeding, infection, and complications from anesthesia. If a doctor favoring the conservative treatment approach sees he can achieve beneficial results by administering a drug, a therapy, or a noninvasive treatment, he would be likely to favor it. Sometimes, though, a conservative treatment takes longer, is not as effective, and surgery tends to stand the advantage of either working or not. It’s a higher risk investment with a greater chance of payout.

This does not mean that a conservative treatment has no risks. A longer treatment time, ineffectiveness, and potential complications from non-surgical interventions can all be high too. It’s quite possible when a doctor is too conservative that further damage to the body may affect future health or survival. Conservative doesn’t always mean “slowly but surely,” and it sometimes means that people wait with painful continuation of their symptoms for a treatment to work, which may never happen.

Some doctors view this as a multi-stage approach. They begin with the least intervention and scale up as needed to the level of aggression that is effective in fighting a disease. Other doctors want to hit the illness hard; at first diagnosis, throw everything at it and cure it as quickly possible. This approach can backfire and one instance of this is the overuse of antibiotics, which has led to so many antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains. Doctors are now required to take a much more conservative approach when prescribing antibiotics so they minimize this potential effect.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By musicshaman — On Jul 09, 2010

@pharmchick78 -- Well sure, but I think that when it comes down to it the doctor should have a lot more influence on the choice of treatment than the patient. With the situation you mention above (telling the patient about aggressive treatments) I think that patients certainly have the right to know about all their treatment options, but think about the position that puts the doctors in.

They've already got all these options -- surgical or medical, aggressive or conservative or something in between -- and now they have somebody who doesn't really know anything about the treatment trying to influence their decision as well.

I'm not saying that patients shouldn't have choices or be able to make their treatment preferences known, I just think that in some situations, the doctor really does know best, and should be able to use conservative treatment when he thinks it is the best way to go without catching flak.

By pharmchick78 — On Jul 09, 2010

While I can understand the good points about conservative treatment, I feel that it can sometimes be used an excuse to avoid risk by the doctor, rather than the patient.

While doctors of course want their patients to get well, they also have to be so careful nowadays about malpractice lawsuits that it can make them overly cautious when choosing treatment courses.

It's a sticky issue, but I think that a little more boldness on the part of doctors wouldn't hurt -- for example, at least letting patients know about more aggressive treatments (along with the risks and side effects of course) even if the patients choose not to take them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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