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

Complementary Medicine
Beginning in the 1990s, a growing number of doctors and hospitals began to describe their use of unconventional and alternative medical treatments as complementary medicine. The emphasis was on using nonconventional treatments as a complement to already prescribed conventional medical treatment.

Different from the "either/or" nuance of the "alternative" label for medical treatment, in complementary medicine, nonconventional treatments are used as an adjunct to conventional treatments. The conventional medical treatments are the primary form of treatment while other systems of medicine, modalities, and nonconventional treatments play a secondary role to support and complement the conventional medical treatment.

Author Larry Dossey, M.D., shares a personal experience with a patient who requested her own form of complementary medicine when he was in practice as an internist several years ago. "I had a patient who had an enlarged ovary and needed surgery because we were concerned it might be cancerous," he says. "This woman had a very sophisticated, complex view of the world that I really admired and shared. As I was sorting through all the gynecologists who I could refer her to, the question in my mind was, 'Who in the world am I going to ask to operate on this woman?' My patient strongly believed in the power of music, of hypnosis, of pyramids, and that only positive things be said to her while she was under anesthesia.

"I thought of one woman gynecologist who I thought would be open to working within the belief systems of this woman. So I asked the physician, 'Can you honor this patient's beliefs about healing even though they may be very different than your own?' The doctor felt that she could. Then I asked the same question of the anesthesiologist and the nursing staff. Everyone said that they would cooperate.

"When my patient arrived at her room at the hospital, she set up a sound system and played music she felt would help her heal. She made other changes to the room, including hanging art work from her home so she could have the kind of visual input in a sterile room that she felt was important to her.

"She had the surgery as scheduled and it went very well. The most impressive result was that she was released about three days ahead of prediction. Also worthy of note: The gynecologist and the entire staff learned a tremendous amount about how these things can really help a patient."16 The term "complementary care" is now being used to describe the philosophy of treatment of a number of progressive and innovative hospitals and clinics. Special emphasis has been placed on utilizing this approach with cancer patients at such institutions as Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.17 In some programs, Ayurveda, behavioral medicine, Chinese medicine, chiropractic, energy medicine, environmental medicine, homeopathy, Native American medicine, naturopathic medicine, nutritional medicine, and osteopathic medicine are being used as adjuncts to conventional medical treatments.18 Some of the more popular "complementary treatments" include meditation and other stress reduction techniques, i.e., biofeedback, therapeutic massage/therapeutic touch, herbal medicine, and prayer therapy.

Integrative Medicine
The most recent of the more popular terms being used to describe the use of unconventional/alternative treatments by medical doctors and other health care practitioners, is integrative medicine (sometimes also called "integral medicine"). Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and author of Spontaneous Healing (Knopf, 1995), has suggested that our current system of medical education be overhauled so that our future doctors can learn alternative systems of medicine and healing with a full appreciation of the healing power of nature and other holistic principles as part of their training.

Integrative medicine seeks to recognize and appreciate the value and wisdom of all healing and medical traditions, giving each their due respect. Different than complementary medicine, which emphasizes the use of unconventional treatments as an adjunct to conventional medicine, integrative medicine seeks to utilize whatever modalities and treatments are the most effective, without preference to any one system, for treating the health care needs of the patients.

Dr. Butch Levy, medical doctor and licensed acupuncturist, says, "A lot of people take herbs and also take their Western medicines. I think that is fine. Crossover is not a problem. It's not about which system of medicine is better than the other. It is about what works."19 Medical doctors who practice integrative medicine advocate a combination approach to treatment, including mainstream medicine and nonconventional treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. No favorable bias is given to any one system of medicine, modality, or treatment. All are looked at without prejudice with only one question in mind, "Which systems, modalities, or treatments are the best to use for the patient's condition?"

Leonard Wisneski, M.D., medical director for the Marriott Corporation, says, "Integral medicine combines the best of conventional, alternative, and wellness medicines and is the structure for the future of health care."21 There is a growing interest in this approach by the public and also the medical community. Dr. Levy agrees. "I think there are a lot of physicians who have really opened their minds a little more to trying to embrace other philosophies of medicine," he says. "It's what the public wants. People want something other than just conventional medicine."20

Given the rapidly growing appreciation for other systems of medicine and the increasing body of research that verifies their efficacy, it is quite likely that "integrative medicine" is truly the medicine of the future.

Health Conditions That Respond Best To An M.D. Using Alternative Medicine
Increasingly the public and conventional doctors recognize that conventional medicine alone does not have all the answers to our health care needs. There is also a growing appreciation for the role that unconventional/alternative treatments can play to address this problem. This is especially so when it comes to chronic health conditions and end-stage illnesses. Dr. Levy says, "I have found that most physicians that deal with chronic problems that they can't solve usually are more open to me as an alternative medical doctor than physicians who deal with acute-care medicine. I think that physicians who have been in practice a while, treating chronic illness, debilitating diseases, and end-stage illnesses (cancer, kidney disease, liver disease) realize that what they have to offer really does not get these people well."22 As mentioned earlier, the use of alternative treatments for cancer is now being incorporated as an adjunct to conventional medicine in many respected hospitals and clinics as "complementary medicine" or "complementary care." "I have a lot of specialists who are willing to send me their patients because they are frustrated and they don't know what to do," Dr. Levy says. "For example I had one oncologist say to me, 'You know I have been in practice twenty-five years doing this and it is really apparent that what I do is not very satisfactory to a lot of people. If you have a better way of approaching it, I am certainly willing to listen to that approach because I realize what I do doesn't offer everything.' I think this is good example of what is starting to change in medicine."23

Additions to Step Two:

Get Good Referrals
The oldest association representing physicians who practice alternative medicine is the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA). Their members and officers represent some of the most visible and respected medical providers of alternative medicine in this country, including: Bernie Siegel, M.D.; Jonathan Collin, M.D., editor of the Townsend Letter; Christiane Northrup, M.D.; Deepak Chopra, M.D.; and Andrew Weil, M.D.

If you are looking for a competent alternative medical doctor, the American Holistic Medical Association will provide you with some good prospects to investigate. The AHMA will give you the names of practicing doctors in your area who are members of their association. Although they are good candidates, the referrals are not offered with a guarantee. Also the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) in Anaheim, California, has a comprehensive referral network.

Another source of good referrals is the American College of Advancement in Medicine in Laguna Hills, California. It provides information and a referral list of M.D.'s around the world trained in preventive medicine, including chelation therapy.

Consider checking with American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), which has a network of over six hundred physicians practicing a variety of alternative medical treatments. To find M.D.'s trained in homeopathy, contact the National Center for Homeopathy and ask for their referral list. You can also find referrals through the American Preventive Medical Association, an advocacy organization with physicians, other alternative practitioners, and the public as members. The Price-Pottinger Foundation in San Diego, California, is also an excellent referral source.

Additions to Step Three:

Screen the Candidates
Once you have found an alternative medical doctor who interests you, call his or her office. You can gather a tremendous amount of valuable information by asking the right questions of the doctor's office staff. Here are some suggestions:

Will you describe the doctor's training in any techniques he or she didn't learn in medical school?

Be sure to find out the number of hours of training the doctor has had in each technique. In addition, ask for board or organizational certifications of completion and competency.

For example, medical doctors who have incorporated acupuncture into their conventional practice might experience success in treating certain conditions that their conventional training alone would not afford them, such as acute and chronic pain that had not responded to conventional medical treatments. Be careful of the doctors practicing acupuncture with only a small amount of training. A board-certified acupuncturist is required to have over fifteen hundred hours of training. The difference between the experience of being treated by a weekend-seminar acupuncturist and a well-trained, certified acupuncturist can be dramatic.

Regarding M.D.'s who practice homeopathy, Maesimund Panos, M.D., a homeopathic physician and coauthor of Homeopathic Medicine at Home (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1981), says, "The answer you don't want to hear is that they were trained in self-help study groups. Study groups are great, but you want your homeopathic care to come from a professional."24

To determine how much training an M.D. should have to competently treat you with a specific alternative technique, call the technique's professional association [see Reference Section] and ask for their standards of competence. Associations and trade organizations representing osteopathic manipulation or Chinese medical techniques, for example, expect M.D.'s to earn hundreds of hours of training from educational facilities specializing in their technique in order to meet minimum competence levels.

How long has the doctor been using these alternative treatments?

Better to be treated by someone who has had the time and hours to mature in the practice and use of his or her chosen alternative treatments than to have a physician "practicing" on you. If the physician has very few hours of training in alternative treatments and is just beginning to use them on his or her patients, you might want to find another physician.

What success has the doctor had in treating patients with physical problems similar to mine?

If you have a specific condition to correct, knowing the doctor's track record will be a significant factor in deciding to work with this physician or not. Ask to have a few patients call you who have had similar problems which the doctor has successfully helped. Generally, if patients are happy with their results, they are apt to share them.

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