Doctors Who Care: Does Alternative Medicine Work?
Leading a growing trend, doctors at the Center for Integrative Medicine incorporate alternative medicine practices like healthier eating and self-healing into mainstream medical care.
“These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism," says Steven Salzberg of John Hopkins University School of Medicine.
I met Brian Berman, A physician of gentle and upbeat demeanor, outside the stately Greek columns that form the facade of one of the nation’s oldest medical-lecture halls, at the edge of the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.
The research center that Berman directs sits next door, in a much smaller, plainer, but still venerable-looking two-story brick building. A staff of 33 works there, including several physician-researchers and practitioner-researchers, funded in part by $35 million in grants over the past 14 years from the National Institutes of Health, which has named the clinic a Research Center of Excellence. In addition to conducting research, the center provides medical care. Indeed, some patients wait as long as two months to begin treatment there—referrals from physicians all across the medical center have grown beyond the staff’s capacity.
“That’s a big change,” said Berman, laughing. “We used to have trouble getting any physicians here to take us seriously.”
The Center for Integrative Medicine, Berman’s clinic, is focused on alternative medicine, sometimes known as “complementary” or “holistic” medicine. There’s no official list of what alternative medicine actually comprises, but treatments falling under the umbrella typically include acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal medicine, Reiki, meditation, massage, aromatherapy, hypnosis, Ayurveda, and several other treatments not normally prescribed by mainstream doctors. The term integrative medicine refers to the conjunction of these practices with mainstream medical care.
Berman’s clinic is hardly unique. In recent years, integrative medical-research clinics have been springing up all around the country, 42 of them at major academic medical institutions including Harvard, Yale, Duke, the University of California at San Francisco, and the Mayo Clinic.
At one of the University of Maryland Medical Center’s hospitals, I introduced myself to Frank Corasaniti, a 60-year-old retired firefighter who had come in for an acupuncture treatment from Lixing Lao, a PhD physiologist with Berman’s center. Corasaniti had injured his back falling down a steel staircase at a firehouse some 20 years earlier, and had subsequently injured both shoulders and his neck in the line of duty. Four surgeries, including one that fused the vertebrae in his neck, followed by regimens of steroid injections and painkillers, had only left him in increasing pain. He retired from the fire department in 2002 and took a less physically demanding job with Home Depot, but by last year his sharpening pain made even that work too difficult. “I was starting to think I’d have to stop doing everything,” he told me. He was particularly worried that he’d be unable to continue helping out his mother, who had been battling cancer for two years.
His wife, a nurse, urged him to try acupuncture and, with the blessing of his doctor, he finally met with Lao, who had trained in his native China as an acupuncturist. Their first visit lasted well over an hour, covering every aspect of his injuries and other health concerns—weight gain, constipation, urinary problems. They talked about his diet, his physical activity, his responsibilities and how they weighed on him. Lao focused in on stress—what was causing it in Corasaniti’s life, and how did it aggravate the pain?—and they discussed the importance of finding ways to relax in everyday life.
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