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 The Big Money in Integrative Health Care 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Integrator Blog by . View all columns in series
Summary: High profile business failures a decade ago in integrative clinics like American Whole Health and Wellspace sent word to venture capital that complementary, alternative and integrative health care were zones to avoid. Yet a series of recent studies of cost outcomes from a wide variety of integrative practices point to the significant financial value in these fields. The gold is latent, in the form of cost savings. The findings suggest that the integrative practice community needs to get off the defensive about its economic merits. It's time to demand focused government investment in the public good, through a flurry of additional pilot projects that can help drive private and public investment in cost-saving models.

ImageThe failures a decade ago of venture capital-backed integrative clinic initiatives like the $75-million American Whole Health boondoggle and the ultimate debacle that was Wellspace left a pall on the business of complementary, alternative and integrative health care.

The enduring message: Investment in these practices and practitioners will never please a venture capitalist's portfolio. More likely they'll break the bank. 

  The judgment from early investment:
Beware. There's no big money here.
 You'll be lucky to get out alive.

The similarly devastating experience of high profile hospital and health system integrative medicine clinics did not help. The demise of bold initiatives like the 10,000 square foot Arizona Center for Health and Medicine, where a Zen garden entrance to groovy curved hallways was shuttered and converted into a telemarketer's call center, only drove the point home. Not only could investment not turn a buck. Integrative clinics in the not-for-profit environment appeared only able to survive with continuing infusions of philanthropic dollars. 
The echo: Investor, beware. There's no big money to be made here. You'll be lucky to get out alive.

Not surprisingly, entrepreneurial interest virtually died out over the subsequent 10 years, despite a continuous uptake of such therapies and practices by the public. 

But a recent review of studies reported during the last year relative to financial outcomes from integrative health care
interventions suggests that the subject deserves re-examination. Notice the pattern.

  • Well-coordinated inpatient integrative care by holistic nurses, licensed acupuncturists and massage therapists at Abbott Northwestern Hospital was estimated to diminish hospital costs $2000 per patient.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee found that patients with low back pain who directly access chiropractors cost 20%-40% less.
  • A study out of the Netherlands found that patients of general practitioners who used a limited set of CAM treatments were healthier and cost the system 7% less.
  • Costs for insureds with significant disease burdens in Washington State who used licensed complementary and alternative medicine practitioners was $1420 less than those who didn't use them.
  • Employees of Canada Post with elevated cardiovascular risk who used naturopathic doctors saved their employers an estimated $1021 less per year.
  • An integrative wellness program at Duke saved an estimated $2200 per employee.

Two of these studies were in health systems. Two were insurers. Two were employers. In each case, the researchers found savings. Significant savings.

Now imagine a system organized around and incorporating all these models for in-patient and out-patient treatment. These studies suggest that there is truly big money in integrative health care. Only the big money is not in the usual kind of production. The big money is in producing savings compared to usual care.

Profit models from integrative
care is not through the usual kind of

production. The big money is in
producing savings compared to
usual care. 

One would think that a system facing medical bankruptcy might catch a hint. Or that investor curiosity would stimulate a little ingenuity. What pilot projects and business models will capture investor interest?

Here's the rub. The financial rewards in the nation's $2.6 trillion of annual healthcare spending go to
pharmaceutical, testing and medical device manufacturers, specialist physicians and the health system executives charged with managing this commerce. Tens of millions of small and large investors in mutual funds have a piece of this industry. Investors are trained to patterns that support the continued growth. 

Now here is integrative health care, promising to take money out of these pockets. The assault would appear to be on all fronts. Via the outpatient integrative care, present incomes are attacked by
personalized wellness, integrative medical practices, chiropractic treatment of low back pain, licensed complementary healthcare providers of all types for multiple conditions, and naturopathic care for lowering risk. Inside hospital walls, acupuncturists, massage therapists and holistic nursing join to dam up usual flows of capital.

Duke chancellor emeritus Ralph Snyderman, MD, who reported the savings from personalized wellness noted above,
addressed this point obliquely in his opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
"Ironically, because reimbursement compensates in-hospital patient care at a higher level than outpatient services, the health system realized a financial disadvantage, and the program proved economically unsustainable."
A more harsh spin on Snyderman's words is that those making money off the current system haven't much incentive to do things differently.

Harsher yet: To charge leaders of this way of doing business to ardently engage significant initiatives to examine best use of integrative practices and practitioners is roughly equivalent to inviting them to take a long stroll off a short plank while shooting their best buddies in the process.

Or to put Hosni Mubarek in charge of developing democracy in Egypt.

No wonder the business models are tough. Yet these recent reports provide guidance. The new healthcare entrepreneur will explore strategies that partner with those who pay for the care rather than those benefiting from current expenditures. The big money in new business models may be in sharing in the savings.

The integrative practice community
needs to get off the defensive and both
positively assert and assume responsibility
for promoting this economic value.

Meantime, the integrative practice community needs to get off the defensive. It must take a lesson from these studies and both positively assert, and assume responsibility for, promoting this economic value. That will mean organizing researchers, institutions and self-actualizing creativity toward developing and promoting cost-focused pilot projects. One emerging venue is the "real world" Strategic Objective #3 of the 2011-02015 strategic plan of the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

This cluster of recent studies suggests that there is indeed big money in integrative health care. It is latent, as unreleased savings.
The failure of the private sector to step up and invest is all the more reason to demand that the government, as agent of the common good, fill the void.

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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......moreJohn Weeks
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