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Spoke in the Wheel

Complementary Medicine Gains Mainstream Acceptance
Bridget Griffin Thompson

Bridget Griffin Thompson said market demand is partly responsible for the inception and subsequent growth of Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Center for Complementary Therapies.

Progress has been slow in coming, but the words are nonetheless proving prophetic.

Almost a decade ago, Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, wrote in that publication that, “since many alternative remedies have recently found their way into the medical mainstream, there cannot be two kinds of medicine, conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.

“Once a treatment has been tested rigorously,” she continued, “it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted.”

That acceptance has been slow in coming, to be sure, but once-fringe therapies such as acupuncture, meditation, and herbal treatments have gained a significant foothold in the American health system, to the point that many proponents reject the term ‘alternative medicine,’ instead preferring the more inclusive ‘complementary medicine.’ Even hospitals are starting to come around.

Consider Cooley Dickinson Hospital, one of the few in Massachusetts to offer a complimentary medicine program in-house. After launching its Center for Complementary Therapies in 2004 with therapeutic massage, prenatal and postpartum massage, and Reiki, the program recently added acupuncture, aromatherapy, healing touch, healing music, and self-hypnosis/guided imagery to its roster of services.

Bridget Griffin Thompson, coordinator of Complementary Therapies and Women’s Health at CDH, said the hospital is simply responding to the needs and desires of its constituency and embracing an admittedly slow-moving trend toward such services in the hospital setting. She cited Hartford Hospital and Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York among those facilities that have institutionalized alternative-healing methods.

“It’s consumer-driven,” Thompson said. “Interest been growing for some time, and we’ve formalized it over the last couple of years. Since then, we’ve added a lot of different modalities and started integrating it into our inpatient population.”

Then there’s Dr. Deborah Hoadley, who operates the Heron Pond Health & Wellness practice in Longmeadow, taking an integrative, mind-body approach to programs in chronic disease, weight loss, general wellness, and her specialty, Lyme disease . She mentioned Lyme disease as an ideal milieu for modalities such as meditation and massage, when conventional doctors typically treat it with antibiotics only.

“Any patient who has ongoing symptoms can benefit from the mind-body approach,” Hoadley said. “That’s because stress hormones increase the production of free radicals, which are molecules that contribute to inflammation in the body. Therefore, any medical condition that has an inflammatory component will benefit from stress-reduction techniques.”

This month, BusinessWest examines some of the factors driving the growth of complementary medicine in traditional settings — and what barriers to further growth still exist.

Growing Influence

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine estimates that more than half of all U.S. adults have sought treatment in non-traditional modalities, with the majority using them in conjunction with traditional medicine — lending support to the term ‘complementary.’

Cooley Dickinson’s growing program, Thompson said, first grew out of childbirth education, with expectant parents desiring more control over their own health decisions and, as a result, seeking innovative models for childbirth care. Thompson soon discovered that patients across the health care spectrum were becoming more open to non-traditional care, but were unsure how to ask for it.

In the past, she explained, patients who had received complementary care or were simply interested in it were reluctant to share that information with their regular doctor. “Today, I’m finding that people want to be a partner with their practitioner. It’s important for consumers to talk to their doctors, to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

Too often, Dr. Harvey Lederman said, that page is being written by the wrong authors.

“We have a medical model in this country that’s increasingly driven by the pharmaceutical industry’s demand for profits, where most data is generated for the purpose of marketing instead of caring for patients,” said Lederman, who incorporates non-traditional herbal and nutritional treatments at Pioneer Valley Family Medicine in Northampton.

That pharmaceutical influence, he explained, poses a trap for doctors who want to stay abreast of the newest medical information but find that much of it is paid for by drug companies. He noted, for example, that 80% of medical research is now funded by such firms, when 30 years ago, 80% of it was paid for by academic medical institutions.

“Even the most prestigious journals present what they want me to read. So the more knowledgeable a physician is, the more influenced he is by the pharmaceutical industry.”

The good news, in Lederman’s opinion, is that consumers seem to be ahead of doctors when it comes to being open to treatment alternatives not promoted by major drug makers.

“Patients intuitively know what they want,” he said, noting that they’re increasingly using the computer to research alternatives to industry-backed pharmaceuticals.

“They see alternative treatments as an adjunct to conventional treatment, not something that will replace it.” That’s partly why vitamins and herbs are the fastest-growing segment of complementary health, he added, although modalities such as acupuncture and Reiki are gaining more acceptance as well.

“I tend to use certain nutrients and herbs in my practice, and I hook patients up with other treatments that might be helpful to them. You can’t be an expert on everything,” he said. “But the very fact that you’re receptive to alternative medicine, I think, makes you a draw for patients who don’t want their doctor to be closed-minded about all this.”

In the meantime, he hopes patients develop some skepticism about what they’re hearing from drug companies, and want to do their own research. “That’s certainly an appropriate reaction,” he said. “You can’t turn on the TV or read a magazine without being bombarded with new diseases that are only diseases because someone has a new drug to treat them.”

Looking for Alternatives

Where Lederman focuses on herbals and vitamins, Thompson said her program puts more emphasis on other modalities. She said people shouldn’t see alternative health as being in competition with traditional modes, but as another spoke in the wheel of healing.

“It has been huge,” she said. “People are just so thankful for what we’re doing here. Many people have been accessing complementary therapy outside the hospital, so they’re excited that we have it here.”

Thompson noted that some patients would rather not enter a hospital by choice, while others are more comfortable being treated there because they know the licensing and training guidelines will result in a high standard of care.

Hoadley admitted that many patients are surprised that massage and yoga can affect the body’s response to Lyme disease and other conditions, but said they’re increasingly open to the idea.

“A large number of people are turning to complementary therapies,” Hoadley said. “We’re seeing more patients seeking an integrative approach to their health.”

The mainstream medical community, it seems, is paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]