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Finding an Alternative Doctor

The recent growth of alternative medicine has brought with it an age-old problem for patients: making informed decisions about the proper course of treatment. Sometimes this means weighing alternative remedies against traditional treatments.

In other cases, it means finding a doctor who will be open-minded and informed enough to recommend the best treatment available. Finding such practitioners who know how to integrate the best of conventional and alternative medicine is becoming increasingly easy, but the rising popularity of alternatives has led to a glut of unqualified "quacks." Consumers need to guard against worthless remedies. Here are important points to keep in mind.

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Five Easy Steps to Finding an Alternative Practitioner

Michael and Mary Morton have addressed the issue of choosing an alternative practitioner in their book, Five Steps to Selecting the Best Alternative Medicine (New World Library, 1996). The Mortons recommend the following process:

  • Learn your options
  • Get good referrals
  • Screen the health-care professionals you are considering
  • Interview each one
  • Remember that you are forming a partnership with the person treating you

This last point constitutes a change in the way medicine has been practiced in the West for much of this century.

"We basically gave doctors tremendous carte blanche," Michael Morton says. "It was worshiping the God of technology."

Today, patients who are tired of old methods but unsure about new ones, can limit their choices to those alternative practitioners who are subject to license: holistic MDs, chiropractors, acupuncturists, osteopaths and naturopaths.

Additionally, the Mortons emphasize that one should look for the best treatment at all times, whether it is alternative or conventional.

"Different systems of medicine are good for different conditions," notes Michael Morton. Western medicine is better for emergency care or injury, while alternative therapies may be more effective for dealing with chronic conditions in some people.

"There's good medicine in Western medicine and there's bad medicine in Western medicine," Morton points out, "just like there are in alternative treatments."

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Teaching Tomorrow's Doctors

Like the Mortons, Linda Gooding wants people to think about alternative medicine in a rational, practical way. Gooding is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University in Atlanta, where she also teaches medical students about alternative methods of treating patients.

"Some medical schools have embraced alternative medicine more than others," she says.

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Why should future doctors be open-minded about alternative treatments? One key reason, Gooding says, is credibility. A doctor who ignores a patient's claims to have successfully used an alternative therapy may lose effectiveness with that patient.

"It would be my hope in the long run that alternative medicine would have a major impact on the way we train physicians," she says.

Ducking the Quacks

Unfortunately, the growth in alternative therapies has also meant a growth in bogus remedies hawked by medical impostors.

"I think we're in the golden age of quackery," says Dr. Stephen Barrett, who founded the Quackwatch web site. Once upon a time, tricksters traveled from town to town peddling their wares, but in today's wired world, many of them have found a home on the Internet. And although the Federal Trade Commission tries to police sites offering phony cures, the best defense against quackery is for consumers to educate themselves.

Dr. John Renner is another "quackwatcher." He's president of the National Council for Reliable Health Information and chief medical officer of the Healthscout web site, where readers can find health news or just answers to basic questions.

"I'm interested in helping patients accumulate information so they can help themselves, without having to go to a doctor all the time," he states. This pertains to all kinds of medicine. The fields of diet and nutrition, for instance, are notorious for the useless weight-loss gimmicks that consumers are urged to buy.

Renner recommends that people avoid health-food stores that are long on diet supplements and short on simple, healthy foods. However, other health care issues, such as purported cures for cancer, are more difficult for patients to evaluate objectively.

"Desperation really does enter in," Renner admits. Fortunately, there are numerous reliable Web sites on the subject, such as the American Cancer Society. For health issues of all kinds, people can also use the governments Health and Human Services Department Website. We're in the "Information Age," so it's all the more important for us to make sure our information is reliable.

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