Complementary medicine is growing nationally and locally

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 8/25/99.

A few facts about complementary, also called alternative, medicine might come as a surprise to some of you. According to a 1993 study, printed in the New England Journal of Medicine, the number of visits to providers of alternative medicine (425 million) surpassed the number to primary care physicians (388 million). Since then, the authors, David M. Eisenberg of Harvard University and colleagues, have found that visits to alternative medicine providers in 1997 increased to 629 million.

And since much of these therapies are not covered by insurance, the out-of-pocket costs according to the 1993 study was $10.5 billion out of a total cost of $13.7 billion. By 1997, those out-of-pocket payments had grown to $12.2 billion.

In other words, there's a sizable need, or market, depending how you look at it, for this type of medical services.

Local history
Paynesville Area Health Care System started to get more involved in complementary medicine several years ago, after the addition of Dr. Tom Sult to the medical staff. "Being from California, he was exposed to (complementary medicine)," explained Willie LaCroix, hospital system administrator. "He convinced us that he knew what he was doing and we went with it."

While the name might not suggest it, some of the treatments offered locally are already familiar. Treatments like support groups, diet and nutrition, lifestyle changes, counseling and prayer, massage therapy, and chiropractic medicine may sound more like standard medicine than "alternative."

Take herbs. Annual sales in the herbal market hit $3.24 billion in 1996, according to Gregory A. Plotnikoff, M.D., an assistant professor in internal medicine at the University of Minnesota and medical director of the university's Center for Spirituality and Healing. That total doesn't include the related use of herbs in what we consider standard medicine. "Of the 150 best-selling prescription drugs," Plotnikoff writes a journal article, "86 contain at least one major active compound from natural sources."

Other treatments--like homeopathy, chelation, magnetic field therapy, acupuncture, traditional Oriental medicine, and herbal medicines--may sound unfamiliar, but so do many standard medical treatments.

Chelation has been used as treatment to 150 patients at PAHCS. It uses a combination of drugs to pull heavy metals (like lead, arsenic, and mercury) out of the body. These metals are poisons to the body, said Dr. Sult. This treatment is also used for some vascular diseases, as the treatment also decreases the amount of plaque in blood vessels. While the drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it isn't an approved treatment for vascular diseases.

Chelation treatments require, on average, 30 doses. With 150 patients, that's around 4,500 treatments locally. Patients come from around and outside the state. "I dare say we've had patients from four states," said LaCroix.

Sult said that he uses acupuncture mainly as a treatment for chronic pain, and for other things, like treating people with allergies that are so severe that they are allergic even to allergy medications. Complementary medicine uses indigenous treatments from around the world, from herbology to Tibetan and Chinese methods. "Alternative medicine in most places of the world is considered standard medicine," said Dr. Sult.

Functional medicine
The most common complementary medicine used by Dr. Sult isn't a special treatment, but an approach. This approach, he said, starts by taking each patient on a one-on-one basis, and not focusing on diagnosing a disease. "We're trying to see people as individuals and treat them, not diseases," Dr. Sult said.

Functional medicine aims at optimizing the body functions. The body, in turn, can heal itself. "Treatments may involve changing the types of or frequency of foods consumed. Food sensitivities and allergies are a common cause of ill health. In other cases, specific foods may be recommended to correct nutritional imbalances," states an industry brochure about functional medicine.

Dr. Sult outlined an example of this method with a patient suffering from high blood pressure. He might start by altering their diet, and then trying adding a food to their diet. If that still doesn't work, a nutritional supplement may be added to their diet. Then they might check the levels of heavy metals in the patient's body and their allergies to foods.

If none of these noninvasive treatments work, they ultimately may end up trying a prescription medicine. "The point is we'll control their disease process and hopefully fix their disease process with the minimum invasion," said Dr. Sult.

Another example involves gastrointestinal cures for symptoms as disparate as bad breath, lethargy, joint pain, or headaches. The digestive system not only absorbs nutrients, but it prevents certain toxins from entering the body. "When the gut lining is damaged or unhealthy," the industry brochure states, "a condition known as 'leaky gut' develops. Undigested foods, toxins, and potentially harmful organisms are allowed to 'leak' through the barrier into the bloodstream and are carried throughout the body."

Curing the "leaky gut" may solve a seemingly unrelated problem.

Growing acceptance
Insurance companies don't cover a lot of complementary medicine treatments. "If there's any reason at all, they'll refuse to pay," explained LaCroix. "In this case, there's a margin of doubt." Consumer demand will lead to more and more of the costs being covered, he predicted.

Complementary medicine continues to gain acceptance in other ways as well. "One proof locally in the state is the Legislature just appropriated $15 million to the university for a department and higher study in alternative medicine," LaCroix explained. "They only got half of what they wanted, but just getting that was significant."

With the opening of the Integrated Health Center on Sept. 7, PAHCS will continue its efforts to bridge complementary medicine with Western style medicine. "A lot of people come to me cause they want to talk about herbs and to a medical doctor," said Dr. Sult, who noted that herbologists know more about herbs than he does.

What some people want seems to be an integration of complementary medicine techniques with a creditable health care provider. "That strikes a balance in many people's minds," said Dr. Sult.

LaCroix said the hospital system is using its credibility in credentialing complementary medicine. "Therefore, I think the hospital board and the administration take it very seriously...because we have a responsibility to the community," he explained.

Their motivation is not the revenue the business could generate, LaCroix added. "We're doing it for the actual well being of the patient," LaCroix said. "If we were doing it for any of those other reasons, then we're doing it for the wrong reasons."

(In next week's Press, there will be another feature on the expansion of the health care system through satellite clinics, which will include more insight into the Integrated Health Center in Paynesville as well as updates on clinic construction in Richmond and expansion into Watkins.)

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