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Obama's Comments on Acupuncture and Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Link to Prevention

© John Weeks

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Integrator Blog by John Weeks . View all columns in series
Summary:

So what does the youthful new president of the United States of American think about complementary and alternative medicine? Despite very positive comments about the importance of prevention, we've seen nothing on this topic from Barack Obama other than a campaign-era letter of support for chiropractic. Thanks to a questioner in a public forum last month, we now have more of an answer. Here is the transcript of those comments, in full. The short answer: Obama wouldn't mind a massage, thinks science has shown some value in acupuncture, and links this subject with his administration's efforts to promote a prevention orientation via healthcare reform. Obama is articulate about the resistance to prevention orientation in both the political and healthcare arenas. It's a rich exchange involving science, prevention and politics, mixed in with a little humor.


Image
U.S. President Barack Obama
I first heard that President Barack Obama had made a favorable comment on acupuncture through the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM). Obama was at a Town Hall meeting in St. Louis. The AAAOM linked me to an audio site and I listened to the comments. I recently found a written transcript, thanks to an anti-complementary medicine blogger Steven Novella. It's
a rich exchange, involving science, prevention and politics, mixed in with a little humor.

Questioner: I’m a licensed acupuncturist and licensed massage therapist in Florissant.  And so –

Obama: I could use one right now.  (Laughter.)  My back is stiff.  I’ve been working hard.

   
I think one basic principle
that we know is that the
more we do on the prevention
side, the more we can obtain
serious savings down the road.
 

 
Questioner: I’ll be happy to help you.  (Laughter.)  And this kind of fits into what you were just talking about as far as health care.  I’m wondering, as a practitioner of Oriental medicine, knowing that the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization has discovered through their studies that alternative medicine often is more cost-effective and very effective, how will alternative medicine fit in your new health care program?

Obama:  Well, look, my attitude is that we should — we should do what works.  So I think it is pretty well documented through scientific studies that acupuncture, for example, can be very helpful in relieving certain things like migraines and other ailments — or at least as effective as more intrusive interventions.

I will let the science guide me.  We just swore in an outstanding new Secretary of Health and Human Service, Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas.  (Applause.)  It’s good to see that a Jay Hawk got applause on this side of the border here. (Laughter.)  But she’s going to do an outstanding job.  And my charge to her is, as we’re going through health care reform let’s find out what works.

I think one basic principle that we know is that the more we do on the prevention side, the more we can obtain serious savings down the road.  So giving children early checkups, making sure that they get immunized, making sure that they are diagnosed if they’ve got eyesight problems, making sure that they’re taught proper nutrition to avoid a life of obesity — those are all issues that we have some control over.  And if we’re making those investments, we will save huge amounts of money in the long-term.

   
 
 Unfortunately, the hardest thing
to do in politics — and certainly
in health care reform — has been
to get policymakers to make
investments early that will have
long-term payoffs.

Unfortunately, the hardest thing to do in politics — and certainly in health care reform — has been to get policymakers to make investments early that will have long-term payoffs.  Because people — their attitude is, well, I’ll be out of office by the time that kid grows up; and, the fact that they’re healthy, that doesn’t help me.  And in the private sector insurance system, oftentimes insurers make the same calculation. Their attitude is, well, people change jobs enough for us to pay for the preventive medicine now when the problem may not crop up for another 20 years and they’ll be long out of our system, so we don’t want to reimburse it because it will make things more costly.  That’s the logic of our health care system that we’re going to have to change.

The recovery package put a huge amount in prevention.  We are, in our budget, calling for significant increases in prevention.  And my hope is, is that working in a bipartisan fashion we are going to be able to get a health care reform bill on my desk before the end of the year that will start seeing the kinds of investments that will make everybody healthier.  All right?  (Applause.)

Comment:  I find Obama's link of complementary and alternative medicine with "what we do on the prevention side" happily illuminating about his thinking. That he gets it becomes more obvious when he begins to describe how conventional politician and insurer habits of mind and practice get in the way of supporting any prevention-oriented approaches. The frustration is the lack of any clarity, to date, on how preventively-oriented, non-conventional practitioners fit into his administration's prevention plans. Clarity on this would be useful. 

Anti-CAM blogger Novella, by the way, who provided this transcript, believes that Obama has made a "huge gaffe" with his apparent support of acupuncture, on the level of George W. Bush's statement that
the “jury is still out” on the question of evolution.

Send your comments to johnweeks@theintegratorblog.com
for inclusion in a future Your Comments Forum.
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About The Author
Resumes are useful in employment decisions. I provide this background so that you may understand what informs the work which you may employ in your own. I have been involved as an organizer-writer in the emerging fields of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine since 1983. Happily, I have learned some things. I was once called an "expert in alternative medicine" by......more
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