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 Alternative and Complementary Therapies: The M.D. as an Alternative Practitioner 
Michael Morton Alan PhD, Mary Morton ©
Did You Know That:

  • In the future, it is expected that the greatest number of practitioners of alternative medicine will be M.D.'s.1
  • A recent survey of family physicians in the U.S. found that more than half regularly prescribe alternative treatments or have tried alternative therapies themselves.2
  • In Resolution 514, the American Medical Association (AMA) "is encouraging its members to become better informed regarding alternative medicine and to participate in appropriate studies of it."3
  • At this writing, thirty-seven or almost one-third of conventional medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, offer courses in alternative medicine.4
  • Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York is one of a growing number of hospitals creating alternative medical clinics on site.
  • Dean Ornish, M.D., developed a program that reverses heart disease, a feat previously considered impossible by the conventional medical community. All treatments in Dr. Ornish's program are considered alternative.5

An ever-increasing number of medical doctors are showing a genuine interest in practicing alternative medicine.6 Many of them have come to appreciate that the American health care consumers who use alternative medicine may know something they don't about getting well. Many physicians are recognizing that they can be even better doctors for their patients by integrating unconventional and alternative medical treatments into their conventional practices. Because of this change in the opinions of M.D.'s about alternative medicine, many well-respected medical schools are now offering courses and programs in alternative medicine.

The idea of medical doctors becoming even better doctors for their patients is very good news because conventionally trained M.D.'s are skilled experts in a valuable system of medicine. Add to this expertise in conventional medicine a commitment to compassionately serve the patient as a person, plus an expertise in effective non-invasive treatments of alternative medicine — and the patient has an exceptional physician worth his or her weight in gold.

A doctor who genuinely appreciates and practices high quality alternative medicine is a doctor committed to a holistic approach to health care. Their practice is founded on the following "Principles of Ethics" of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA):

1. Physicians render service to humanity with full respect for the dignity of humankind, treating the total person: body, mind, and spirit. The treatment shall be at all times in the best interest of the patient.

2. Physicians continually improve their skill and medical knowledge and make it available to their patients.

3. Physicians recognize that patients have the right to share in making decisions that pertain to their treatment. They guide and educate patients toward this goal and actively encourage patients to share responsibility for their care.

4. A physician has the right to utilize all responsible methods of treatment. The physician has the obligation, however, to determine the efficacy and safety of such procedures and to acquire the skills and training necessary for the delivery of such care.7

These principles are at the very core of a healthy alternative/ unconventional medical practice. It is this group of doctors you can trust to practice high quality alternative medicine.

Still, one trend among M.D.'s practicing alternative medicine is not good news and that is the tendency of some medical doctors to embrace the techniques of alternative medicine without the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care. This particular group of doctors who call themselves "alternative medical doctors" define alternative medicine simply as any treatment "not widely taught at U.S. medical schools or generally available at U.S. hospitals."8 Patients who are treated by these physicians have no guarantee that such a doctor using alternative treatments will also treat them in the spirit of a holistic approach to health care. Such a doctor may not treat their patients as human beings or even be interested in their thoughts and feelings about treatment. These doctors, even though they may be using alternative/unconventional techniques, may still see you only as a diagnosis — not as a person.

The fact is that this can be true for any practitioner of any alternative medical treatments, not just medical doctors. The difference is that most practitioners of alternative medical systems and modalities are, more often than not, committed to the ethos of the holistic approach to health care. They are taught to use this approach as the rationale for the application of the techniques of alternative medicine in which they are trained.

In other words, because most systems and modalities of alternative medicine are rooted in an ethos similar to those outlined above by the AHMA, the chances are much higher that a practitioner trained in an alternative system or modality of healing will have incorporated an appreciation for these ethics as part of their training and have a deep commitment to them in his or her practice.

This may not be the case for the Western-trained conventional biomedical doctor who, historically, has had no training in applying the principles that make up the ethos of a holistic approach to health care. In fact, some conventional doctors are now taking courses to learn the techniques of alternative medicine without training to appreciate the ethos of holistic approach to treatment so vital for the healthy application of alternative treatments.

Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac., of Lakewood, Colorado, and a competently trained and licensed acupuncturist, agrees and says, "Most western doctors have a hard time letting go of their Western paradigm, which is the basis of their medical education, so they can really learn a new way of healing. If they cannot do this, even for a little while, they cannot gain a new understanding. They need to learn to say, 'I understand this concept. Now I have to go on and learn a different way to think as opposed to adapting alternative medicine to how Western medicine thinks it should be.'" 9

Regrettably, a lot of Western doctors are afraid to do this — to learn another system of medicine on the terms on which it was developed. In order for M.D.'s to practice "high quality" alternative medicine, they have to be willing to change not only what they have been doing, but also how they view the body, what healing is, and the role that a patient plays in the healing process.

Dr. Levy made an initial commitment to do just that when he began studying Chinese medicine. He says, "When I studied Chinese medicine, I made a commitment to myself not to bring a Western paradigm to my study. I went into it saying, 'I don't know anything about this. I have to be willing to start over again. I am going to learn this based on how the Oriental people view this, rather than trying to turn this medicine into conventional medicine or "Western" medicine using Eastern concepts.'"10 Unfortunately the broad scope of practice granted to an M.D. by their license allows them to take short, consolidated courses on complex systems of alternative medicine and then immediately offer them to the public. Dr. Levy feels, "No one, not even an M.D., can just take a weekend course in acupuncture and really call him- or herself a competent acupuncturist. I think this practice of M.D.'s taking quick classes and then practicing alternative techniques without responsible training is an important issue for both the public and the state licensing bodies to look at."11

Another trend to watch for is the increasing number of alternative medical clinics being run by an M.D. as the oversight physician, with a variety of alternative practitioners such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and body workers, herbalists, and others all working under the authority of the M.D. According to Robert Duggan, M.Ac., Dipl.Ac. (NCCA), who teaches "The Philosophy and Practice of Healing" at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, this approach is "the wave to come, be it for good or ill."12 Many worry that if the M.D. is not committed to overseeing an alternative clinic that is founded on the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care, then such a clinic could become a patient mill that fails to provide high quality alternative medical care. Fortunately, there are a growing number of M.D.'s who are committed to the spirit and ethos of holistic approach to health care and many of them will oversee these developing alternative medical clinics. Still, it is in your best interest to do the Five Step process outlined in Part I of this book to be sure you receive high quality alternative medicine when considering treatment at such a clinic.

Here are two stories about two very different alternative medical doctors:

Two years ago, I was in bad car accident. I had injuries to my right knee, a broken collar bone, as well as a concussion and "internal bruising." After two surgeries on my knee, I took a month off work to heal my other injuries. But at the end of the month, I did not feel back to my old self.

Five months after the accident, my back and neck were still hurting me; my body was stiff and bruised-feeling; my right knee was still causing me problems; my digestive system did not seem to work right; and, worst of all, I was having a recurring nightmare of the accident and at times had episodes of unexpected terror when riding in or driving a car. No matter what I did, I felt "out of sorts" all the time. My body just did not feel right.

My older brother knew about all this and suggested I see an M.D. he said might be able to help me. He said that this doctor was into "different things" than most medical doctors but assured me that he was not a quack. Given that I had a lot of respect for my brother, I decided to go see this doctor.

When I went to this doctor's office, I was given some papers to read. One was an article on alternative medicine and another was on holistic medicine. I read the information in the articles and many of the ideas were new to me. Still, I especially liked the idea that I would be seen by my doctor as a human being rather than a diagnosis and that the doctor would want to really hear my thoughts and feelings about my health condition. When the doctor came into the examination room, he greeted me with a warm "Hello!" along with a smile and a handshake. He sat down and asked me to tell him why I was there to see him. As I told him my story, I was amazed at how he listened to me: he really listened. Afterwards, he asked me some questions about my personal life and about my job, as well as how I was doing generally. Next he gave me a physical examination with special attention to the auto injuries. He was very gentle and told me to let him know if anything he was doing was causing me pain. When he finished the physical, he shared with me some of the treatments that he thought would be good for me based on the exam and what I had told him. He talked about the idea of a "healing program" that would help me really get over the effects of the auto accident. First he discussed what we could do for my body. As part of the healing program, he suggested I take a beginning hatha yoga class to stretch out my tightened muscles and to massage my internal organs. He said that would help me let go of some of the trauma my body was holding onto from the accident as well as possibly help my digestive system to work better. He also told me about homeopathy and said he had some homeopathic remedies that could help the bruised feeling inside my body and even help with my digestion. Next he talked about the terror episodes I was having and told me that this was a normal reaction after such a traumatic event. He suggested another homeopathic remedy for this as well as three to six sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). These sessions would focus on the accident and help me learn to let go of the trauma that was causing the terror episodes. After sharing his recommendations, this doctor asked me if I had any questions or concerns about his ideas for a healing program. I thought for a minute and told him I was somewhat familiar with yoga, but asked him to explain to me exactly how the homeopathic medicine worked and what EMDR was. The information he shared with me about homeopathy and EMDR was new but seemed to make sense. He gave me several articles and a brochure to help me understand them both even better. He told me that even though he could not absolutely guarantee it, he believed I could expect to feel at least 75 percent better in about three or four months if I did the whole program. He then asked me if I would be interested in doing the healing program as he had described. I told him I was. To my surprise, he then asked me if there was anything I could think of that would be good to include in my "healing program." I thought for a moment and said it would probably help if I stopped eating as much junk food and added more "rabbit food" into my diet. He laughed and agreed and offered to give me some information on the power of foods to cause illness or to heal.

(Excerpted from Five Steps to Selecting the Best Alternative Medicine ISBN: 1880032945)
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