Integrative Medicine: Taking Alternatives Mainstream

The popular cry for alternative medicine has been heard loud and clear in the medical profession. Motivated both by increasing patient requests and the changing economics of health care, several medical institutions, including some of the most prestigious in the United States, are now offering complementary therapies.

To be sure, plenty of traditional doctors are skeptical of these new methods. But armed with research funding and field experience, pioneering physicians and patients alike are forging a new world of medicine combining the best of conventional and alternative care.

Integrating Alternatives in Cancer Care

Houston, Texas, might not strike some people as a hotbed of alternative medicine. But Houston is home to the highly regarded M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which has taken a leading role in using alternative therapies to fight cancer. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Anderson Center recently founded its innovative "Place of Wellness" clinic.

How did it get started? "Patients asked for it," says Dr. Walter Baile, one of its physicians. And demand is large: 62 percent of cancer patients at the Anderson Center now use the Place of Wellness as part of their treatment. They do so in a variety of ways. Some, like Joanne Brelsford, relieve pain with acupuncture. Others help the healing process move forward by trying yoga, art therapy, or guided imagery. Kay, who is battling ovarian cancer, finds great satisfaction in making collages and writing poetry.

"When you are working on a project, you are not thinking about your illness," she says. "Its a relief." And although doctors do not regard this type of treatment as a "cure" for cancer, Dr. Lorenzo Cohen of the Anderson Center asserts that by helping patients cope with the stress of conventional cancer care, these therapies "actually increase the efficacy of traditional Western medicine." Researchers at the center also are studying herbal remedies such as mistletoe and oleander in search of new cancer drugs.

Alternative Treatments and the Bottom Line

Many experts believe that increased interest in alternative treatments is driven in part by the high cost of conventional health care.

Dr. Ka Kit Hui founded the Center for East-West Medicine at the UCLA Medical Center in 1993 after convincing hospital administrators that integrative medicine was in the best interest of his patients. Lorraine Dennis definitely agrees. She suffered from debilitating back pain, and for some 20 months, underwent physical therapy, exams, and even surgery, with no improvement. But at UCLAs East-West clinic, she was treated with massage, acupuncture, and made responsible for maintaining a regimen of walking and water aerobics.

Within three months her back problems had cleared up, and she resumed an active life. As an added bonus, the total cost of these alternative treatments was only $605, while her surgery and previous procedures had cost nearly $34,000.

No Alternative to Research

Few insurance companies will provide coverage for patients seeking complementary therapies. Also, the inexpensive nature of these treatments means that most large medical institutions don't see alternative clinics as money-makers.

"This is a very costly proposition to start up," warns Dr. Jerry Whitworth, director of complementary medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital. In his view, hospitals need to have a long-term commitment to their alternative clinics: "The long haul is 10 to 20 years." At that point, centers of alternative medicine will not only remain important, but become profitable, too.

No Alternative to Research

That's not to say there's no money in alternative medicine. Indeed, at $20 billion a year, almost everyone is looking to get in on the action. Consequently, the National Institutes of Health has allocated $100 million distributed among 13 institutions just in the past year in an effort to help the public understand what works and what doesn't. Dr. William Harlan, acting director of the NIH's Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says the agency's role in this area is to "look for therapeutic approaches that have value and should be incorporated into medicine."

The University of Michigan is one research institution receiving funding from the NIH. Dr. Steven Bolling, a heart specialist there, is conducting multiple studies of alternative treatments. One concerns the use of techniques such as chi-gong and a form of bodywork called reiki to help post-operative heart patients recover from surgery.

Another study concerns the use of hawthorn berries in cardiovascular treatments. Skeptical colleagues, of course, ask why there isn't more hard proof that these remedies work.

"That's a very valid question," says Bolling. It's why he wants to do more research. As he notes: "If it can be proved and published in reputable medical journals, they'll use it."

Fred Luskin, a researcher at Stanford University who is examining the relationship between emotional states and heart activity, has encountered the same issue: Some aspects of integrative medicine need additional research to gain wider acceptance.

Ultimately, as Dr. Harlan sees it, the government finances research so that consumers will have more information about alternative therapies.

"The public will know, from a public health perspective, which ones to use." In this way, the NIH will firmly support "evidence-based integrative medicine." And when that day arrives, many ancient alternatives will be part of a new mainstream.