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Curing Patient Frustration: How Alternative Medicine Can Help

By: Fred Pescatore, MD, MPH

At the close of the twentieth century, we are reminded of a hundred years of advances, most of which have advanced our quest for scientific knowledge, better living, and harmony with the environment. We are living in a high tech world, but how that does affect health care? Are people even happy with the changes that have occurred because of this technology?

The Pitfalls of Today's Healthcare
There is no doubt that people are living longer than ever before, largely due to drugs that help us fight disease (especially infections), and to diagnostic techniques, including imaging techniques that allow us to take pictures of structures within the body smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

However, these technological advances have come at a cost.

Technicians, not doctors, run diagnostic machines. A patient often feels like just another number, another gall bladder, another heart attack. Hospitals, and doctors, are overburdened: studies suggest that physicians have just 5 to 6 minutes to spend with each patient.

Germs have developed resistance to every known antibiotic.

And, to add insult, medical insurance premiums are higher then ever, while insurers more than ever limit access to physicians we want to see.

As the century draws to a close, all too often an HMO office worker, not your physician, decides what care you may receive.

HMOs can find advertising dollars, but dollars for CAT scans seem harder to come by. One word sums up the state of affairs: frustration.

Most health providers say they would prefer to be doing something else and most patients long for the days of old when they could choose the physician they wanted, without fearing a denial.

Out of this frustration, a shift in health care has come, one that evokes health care at the beginning of this century, care that our grandmothers knew before the high tech world of "modern medicine."

We physicians who practice integrative medicine have begun to incorporate centuries-old healing arts into our practice. We are going back to basics, and studying more "natural" healing methodologies. The new medicine is becoming the old medicine, in an updated way.

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Alternative Answers
Scientific research into alternative and complementary therapies regularly reveals breakthroughs, and a promise of better health through virtually non-toxic approaches. (For some examples of therapies and research on them, see

Non-toxicity of treatment is a key element to these non-traditional therapies. This is an attractive element of alternative therapies to many patients, especially considering that more deaths occur as a result of drug interactions than almost any other cause of death in this country, except heart disease, cancer and stroke. (This is not to imply that physicians intend to harm patients, but that medications, especially when used in combination, may have side effects that are difficult to predict, due to the complexity of medication interactions.)

Yet many medical associations are still unwilling to accept simple facts about certain vitamins, minerals, and herbs that have been shown to be as effective as some of these conventional drugs, without their harmful side effects. It would appear that some physicians have almost abandoned this Hippocratic precept, "First, do no harm," in their quest to embrace new technology.

Despite this, patients have accepted these truths, and by choice have made alternative or, as I like to call it, integrative medicine, the fastest growing segment of the healthcare industry. In 1998, more patients visited practitioners of alternative methods than conventional physicians, and I expect this number will continue to rise. Why? Because patients are getting the kind of help that they went to the doctor for in the first place. For the most part they get a physician that is willing to sit down and talk to them and explain what they are doing and why - someone who is not always looking at their watch, aware of the five patients in the waiting room. They are treated with non-toxic substances that donít leave them with side effects that are hard to live with. They are getting the personalized care that vanished from your physicianís office. They are getting someone who listens.

Health care choices available to a patient who seeks alternative treatments (also called integrative, holistic, or complementary treatments) are vast. These include acupuncture, homeopathy, Chinese medicine, neuro-linguistic programming, behavioral modification, and many, many more. Many of these traditions go back thousands of years, and have survived for a reason: they are safe and effective for certain conditions.

As the populations in most Western countries continue to age, the importance of treating chronic illness, rather than just acute illness, grows. Here again, I expect, alternative medicine will take over the reins. The use of certain vitamins, minerals and herbs (known as nutritional supplements) have been shown to benefit arthritis pain, diabetes, and some symptoms of asthma, and to help in the prevention of heart disease, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer.

I believe that twenty-first century medicine will see integration of all the healing arts to best suit patients' needs. This is the most remarkable shift that is occurring in health care today. I expect more patients will seek these approaches as they benefit themselves, and see family members, friends and co-workers benefit. This trend, started by word of mouth, will be increasingly supported by countryís medical centers, and research will continue its increased pace, perhaps approaching the level seen in Europe and Japan. Of course, as with any medicine, objective research in these areas is key to determining whether alternative treatments are effective and safe.

Defining integrative medicineís precise role is something that can only stand to benefit all of us. I am looking forward to the "new-old" medical age we are about to enter.

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