Once upon a time, doctors, science and technology were going to fix everything.
So we have lavished our fortune on a high-tech medical system, which consumes about 14 percent of the nation’s economy. We dismissed shamen, faith healers, herbs and Eastern mysticism as dangerous quackery — and heeded efforts by medical doctors to curtail licensing for alternative practitioners like naturopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists.
We bet everything on scientific studies, traditionally trained doctors and double-blind studies.
But a funny thing happened on the way to health, happiness and medical miracles.
We still we don’t feel altogether well. Granted, doctors and public sanitation largely banished the infectious plagues of the past. Instead, we now suffer from epidemic rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. Moreover, we sometimes feel trapped on a medical production line — deconstructed into a bundle of disjointed symptoms.
So we medical consumers have undertaken our own, quiet revolution, turning in increasing numbers to alternative therapies even as modern medicine grows more complex and dehumanizing.
The medical establishment got a glimpse of just how thoroughly the tide has turned a few years ago when a first-ever national study revealed that 34 percent of Americans use at least one unconventional therapy each year.
More than 10 percent of us annually visit alternative practitioners like naturopaths, chiropractors or acupuncturists. The Harvard research team concluded that Americans spend more on alternative therapies than on hospital care. Use of the alternative treatments was highest among well-educated people with higher-than-average incomes.
Some 83 percent of the people using alternative medicine also employed conventional medicine for the same conditions, but a dismaying 72 percent didn’t even tell their doctors of their experiments with alternative remedies, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine — the bastion of the medical establishment.
The finding staggered many practitioners of conventional medicine — and helped set in motion an ongoing bout of medical soul searching. Some worried they were failing their patients — others that they were losing out on a multi-billion-dollar market.
“The whole thing is being driven by the consumers,” noted Dr. Tracy Gaudet, one of the organizers of the University of Arizona’s newly established training program in alternative, or complementary medicine. “The consumers are out there saying this is what they’re interested in, and they want physicians who can talk to them intelligently about conventional methods and alternatives.”
“The patients are demanding it because alternative medicine gives people hope, and traditional allopathic medicine steals hope,” said Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, a Harvard educated psychiatrist who became a leading, national advocate for a more integrated, humanistic approach after serving for 20 years as the chief psychiatrist for Indian Health Service in Arizona.
“As we drifted toward specialization in which you know more and more about less and less, we segmented the body into its constituent parts. I think the patients felt our disarticulating them into organ systems, as we detached ourselves from heart and spirit.”
The debate touches on a growing appreciation for the mystery that lurks at the heart of healing. Consider, for example, the perplexing placebo effect. Scientific medicine has long held that you can only prove that a drug or treatment actually works if you compare treated patients to untreated patients. But first you must convince the untreated patients they’re getting the cure, because many will get better no matter what you give them. This “placebo effect” has long been treated as an irritating anomaly by researchers.
But consider the implications.
No matter what the disease, many patients’ belief in the drug, or the surgery, or the healer, triggers healing. Belief itself can kill cancer cells, banish depression, lower blood pressure, clear up rashes, strengthen muscles, improve memory.
So what effect does it have on healing if the system makes you feel helpless, itemized and doomed? And by the same token — do herbs, acupuncture needles, quartz crystals or extracts of apricot pit really work, or do they simply trigger that same cascade of healing belief?
The persistent consumer interest in alternatives, coupled with the enormous market, have all forced traditional medicine to take the long-disdained alternatives seriously. The National Institutes of Health in 1992 established the Office of Alternative Medicine to research alternative treatments. The research includes diet, nutrition, mind-body interventions, bioelectromatic fields, herbs, alliterative systems, massage, therapeutic touch, acupuncture and other methods.
Moreover, a growing cadre of medical doctors have taken either brief or intensive training in alternative approaches, like chiropractic manipulation, imagery, acupuncture, herbal remedies, folk remedies, use of electrical fields, meditation, yoga, Ayurveda and other approaches. Often, doctors find they can significantly increase their business if they offer such treatments in conjunction with traditional medicine — implicitly reassuring patients that the treatments won’t include harmful, toxic, quack remedies.
“On the other hand, the rush of medical doctors into the practice of alternative medicine has also inspired skepticism — especially among those who have withstood decades of attack from the medical establishment.
The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Phoenix is one of just three medical schools for naturopaths in the country. It survived, in part, because Arizona was one of the few states that continued to license naturopaths despite fierce resistance from the traditional, medical establishment.
The MDs had nearly stamped out licensed naturopathy nationwide when the American Medical Association was fined in 1975 for anti-trust activities as a result of an action brought by chiropractors. Naturopaths rely mostly on herbal medicines, plus acupuncture, spinal manipulations, physical therapy and an emphasis on diet, exercise and lifestyle.
Naturopaths maintain Renner, a family physician and a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud.
“I think most of this (alternative medicine) stuff is quackery.It’s marketing — and I think Arizona has all the marketing it can stand. There are a lot of unethical people out there on the fringe. The American public is getting snookered every day by quacks of every stripe. Once you get away from things that have some kind of standards and regulations, you are now in a guessing game.”
However, there’s also a rising tide of evidence demonstrating that many alternative treatments provide great benefits.
The research studies sponsored by the NIH have yielded many intriguing results. Small-scale studies of acupuncture, herbs, touch therapy, massage, yoga, Ayurveda, bioelectric fields, hypnosis and other approaches often show significant relief of symptoms over and above the ever-present placebo effect. Sometimes, the alternative approaches have outperformed the standard medicine.
Often, they make patients feel better and reduce depression, anxiety and reported pain levels. Sometimes researchers have documented a significant drop in overall medical costs as a result of the use of an alternative therapy that eased symptoms or stress.
Such findings could prove crucial in convincing many health insurance plans to cover alternative therapies. However, most of the studies remain small-scale and preliminary.
Still, patients continue to vote with their time, belief and money. Many people have come away from alternative treatments converted into true believers.
Often, it’s because of the way they’re treated by the alternative practitioners.
For instance, one study compared chiropractors and medical doctors in the treatment of low back pain. The researchers found little actual difference in function between the two groups of patients.
However, the chiropractors’ patients reported considerably more satisfaction.
The researchers concluded that perhaps that’s because the chiropractors spent more time with their patients, charged less, and appeared more hopeful that the patient would recover.
“The studies are just rampant,” showing that alternative approaches work, observed Dr. Hammerschlag, who wrote The Dancing Healers and Healing Ceremonies.
“Old people in a nursing home who can make a decision about what they eat, do better. Old people who have lost loved ones do better if they have a pet. It’s the simple connection to another living thing — the reminder that one is not alone. In one study in San Francisco, people who’d had a coronary did better if they were prayed for — even if they didn’t know they were being prayed for. We can’t explain it.”
Hammerschlag recalls an experience on the Navajo Reservation which first began breaking down his assumption that Western, scientific medicine held all the answers.
“I saw this guy who had cancer of the stomach — a young man. He was opened and it was an inoperable tumor. The wound never closed. He was oozing all kinds of stuff out of his belly, but he never complained of pain. He prayed every day. Saw medicine people. It was very clear that he was coming to the event in a different way than I had seen or been prepared for. So I sought out some conservative medicine people, and that is how it began.
“It was magical to me, it was unbelievable. That’s essentially what I’ve discovered. There are many ways to do the healing dance.”