Watchful waiting, also called expectant management, is an approach used in healthcare, when a potentially serious condition has been diagnosed, but is also known to be slow to develop and where treatment options are limited or have major side effects. The term may first have come into wide use in the context of prostate cancer, where it involves closely monitoring the cancer without active treatment such as surgery or radiation therapy. It also has been applied to potentially self-limiting conditions such as acute low back pain; watchful waiting in this context may include limited comfort care but no attempt at disease-modifying treatment.
It differs from therapies, such as homeopathy, where active steps are taken to reinforce mechanisms by which the body is believed to heal itself. Watchful waiting does not preclude general health improvement as might be achieved with lifestyle changes in diet and exercise, but does not extend to modifications of hypothesized energy fields, vital forces, etc.
"Expectant", in this context, is quite different than the use of the term in triage, where it refers to patients who are expected to die no matter what is done given available resources, and will receive comfort measures only. In the context of watchful waiting, a patient treated with comfort measures only may well be expected to die of something other than the condition being watched.