The United States is commonly referred to as the land of opportunity where the idea of capitalism rules. Capitalism also extends into the health care field where profit maximization is often a disguised goal. Expensive drugs and invasive surgeries are the norm rather than more preventative and natural methods of caring for patients.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), health care patients in the United States spend more money per capita ($8,745 in 2012) than any other country in the world. In 2013, the total national health care expenditure totaled 2.9 trillion dollars according to data gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Paradoxically, when it comes to obesity, life expectancy rates, and infant mortality, the United States ranks subpar on a global scale.
When it comes to health care, the saying, “more money, more problems” holds true. Based on these rates, it’s obvious that expensive drugs and invasive surgeries are not always the answer. Luca Lorenzoni, health economist at the OECD Health Division explains, “the U.S. is an outlier in terms of the complexity of its health system, which employs diverse insurance programs, payment systems, and a wide range of systems.” A worthwhile approach to closing the gap and reversing the contradiction could lie in alternative medicine.
What is Alternative Medicine?
The National Library of Medicine defines alternative medicine as, “any medical treatments that are not a part of mainstream medicine.” Other names for alternative medicine often include integrative medicine, functional medicine, and complementary medicine.
Although this type of medical practice may not seem so common, nearly 40 percent of adults have reported using complementary and alternative medicine, also referred to as CAM according to the Mayo Clinic. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies alternative medicine into 5 categories.
Types of Alternative Medicine
1) Whole Medical Systems – These systems aren’t just a single remedy or practice, but many practices that center on a philosophy. Examples of whole medical systems are:
- Naturopathy – noninvasive practices such as massage, herbal remedies, acupuncture, and nutrition
- Ancient Healing Systems – examples include Ayurveda from India and traditional Chinese medicine
- Homeopathy – uses small amounts of natural substances to stimulate self-healing
2) Mind-Body Medicine – Techniques such as prayer, meditation, art therapies, and relaxation are believed to strengthen the harmony between the mind and body. The mind and body must be in sync in order for a person to stay healthy.
3) Biologically Based Practices – Includes treatments using ingredients found in nature. Herbs and dietary supplements comprised of teas, oils, powders, pills, and syrups compose this type of alternative medicine.
4) Manipulative & Body-Based Practices – Techniques like chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation and massage address musculoskeletal, neurological, and lymphatic abnormalities/imbalances.
5) Energy Medicine – The theory behind this medicine is that invisible energy flows through the human body that contributes to sickness when our energy flow is blocked or unbalanced. Methods include reiki, qi gong, chakra balancing and magnet therapy.
Does Alternative Medicine Really Work?
There has often been the debate as to what extent alternative medicine really works. What “alternative medicine” means to many of us in the United States has been standard practice for decades or centuries in other areas of the world. We have all heard the studies about the links between omega-3’s and a reduction in the predisposition for cardiovascular disease, probiotics for digestive health, and herbal medicine to combat the side effects of cancer treatment. One by one, treatments which were considered “alternative” a few years ago are becoming mainstream, as scientific research is conducted to find out what works….and what doesn’t.
As alternative medicine is proven to be successful in preventing, managing, and reversing sickness and disease, it will mean a revolutionary change in the way healthcare is delivered in the United States. As alternative medicine is embraced more and more, then hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors will see a drastic decline in revenue.
In the United States, the Office of Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health was established by Congress in 1991 to conduct scientific research and determine the effectiveness of alternative medicine. Now called the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, it aims to, “advance the science and practice of symptom management, develop effective, practical, personalized strategies for promoting health and well-being, and enable better evidence-based decision making regarding use of complementary and integrative therapies and their inclusion in health care and health promotion.”
Some of the many studies conducted at the Center have shown that the risk of stroke is lessened after Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation in older patients with neck pain; mindfulness meditation benefits people with insomnia and ulcerative colitis; but also finds that acupuncture does not treat infertility and that the herb ginkgo does not treat high blood pressure in older adults. Their unbiased research findings establish the center as a trusted source for alternative medicine information.
Because the field of alternative medicine is so large, it can sometimes be difficult to say what is effective and what isn’t. I feel it is best to consider all types of treatment, for each specific ailment or condition, on a case-by-case basis.
The beauty of integrative and functional medicine is that they are able to draw from various areas of both traditional and alternative medicine. For example, if a patient has strep throat, they need the proper antibiotic. On the other hand, if a patient suffers from migraine headaches, the underlying cause can most often be determined and eliminated through natural methods.
In my opinion, legislation should be adopted to support health insurance coverage for alternative medical treatments. Patients should have a choice in the type of care they receive.
A large part of alternative medicine involves prevention and/or disease reversal through diet, lifestyle, and natural supplementation. I believe health insurance companies, Medicare, and Medicaid would find the cost savings alone to be quite attractive.