Integrative Medicine: Taking Alternatives Mainstream

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.