Blended Medicines – From “Alternative” to “Complementary”

Of course, many mainstream physicians are still leery of alternative therapies-and some still call them worthless. But many more have come to realize that their brand of medicine doesn’t have a monopoly on healing and that alternative approaches often are quite valuable. Today’s medical rallying cry is “Whatever works best,” and many of those promoting blended medicine have dropped the term alternative in favor of the term complementary. “Complementary says that these therapies do not replace mainstream medicine,” Dr. Brauer explains. “Rather, they complete it, expanding it to include areas it has undervalued or overlooked-diet, exercise, traditional healing arts, and mind-body therapies.”

“If I’m involved in a serious auto accident, I want the ambulance to take me to the nearest high-tech trauma center. Mainstream medicine is definitely the way to go for serious injuries,” says Andrew T. Well, M.D., director of the program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. “But let’s say I developed chronic pain as a result of the accident. Beyond narcotics, mainstream medicine doesn’t have much to offer. But several complementary therapies can help. I might try chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, massage, or visualization therapy.”

“I’m not opposed to medical technology,” adds Deepak Chopra, M.D., creative director and cofounder of the Chopra Center for Well-Being in La Jolla, California. “Technological medicine is unsurpassed in diagnosing disease and in treating serious injuries and infections. But it does not treat chronic illness-for example, arthritis and heart disease-very effectively, and it under­values the connection between the mind and body. That’s where the complementary therapies excel”

Meanwhile, as mainstream medicine has softened its once-steadfast opposition to anything unorthodox, alternative practitioners have tempered their criticism of many mainstream approaches. “I’m not totally opposed to pharmaceutical drugs or technological medicine,” says Joseph Pizzorno Jr., N.D., president of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, which is the nation’s only accredited medical school that focuses on alternative therapies. “When the body’s self-healing systems have been overwhelmed by injury or infection, conventional approaches save lives. But in my opinion, pharmaceuticals are overprescribed. Their power is impressive in life-or­death situations. For everyday ailments, I prefer nonpharmaceutical therapies that support the body’s self-healing mechanisms. These therapies are gentler. They often work just as well. And they don’t breed resistance like antibiotics do.”

The term alternative medicine is unlikely to disappear in the near future, but complementary medicine is clearly the coming concept. In late 1996, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine changed its name to the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

People like it, People want it

One reason why more and more mainstream M.D.’s are open to blended medicine is ‘that for the first time, mainstream medical journals are publishing studies showing that alternative therapies have real value. (Until recently, most journals published only dire warnings about the dangers of these therapies.) Another reason is high-profile advocates with mainstream medical backgrounds, such as Dr. Weil and Dr. Chopra.

But the people really driving the blending of mainstream and alternative approaches don’t have any initials after their names. They’re consumers like you. “People like alternative therapies,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, an herbal education and research organization based in Austin, Texas. “No one is being forced to use them. A big-possibly the biggest-reason for their popularity is good word-of-mouth support. People tell their friends that their doctors couldn’t relieve their menstrual cramps or shoulder tendinitis, but that an acupuncturist or homeopath or hypnotherapist or herbalist did.”