There is no doubt that under certain circumstances, medications and surgery can be life-saving; however, medicine often does not get to the root of the problem and only acts as a temporary fix. Increasingly, doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners recommend integrating complementary therapies into regular medical care.
Even without the input of a health-care provider, people are choosing to use supplements, herbs, and treatments that are not considered standard in Western medicine. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) regularly conduct surveys of tens of thousands of adults regarding their use of complementary or alternative medicine. Approximately one-third of those surveyed use these therapies.
Western practitioners now commonly ask their patients if they are using any other supplements, herbs, or alternative healing modalities. In fact, medical students are now taught to ask these questions as a matter of course, and academic health centers for integrative medicine can be found in such prestigious schools as Harvard, Tufts, Stanford, the University of Toronto, and the Mayo Clinic, to name but a few. Medical students are now learning about other traditional health systems so they can understand how these treatments can be safely integrated into conventional care. Hospitals are also offering non-allopathic healing services. The American Hospital Association released a survey in 2011 demonstrating that 42 percent of their member hospitals provided these modalities. This represented an increase from 37 percent in 2007.
These complementary therapies cover a wide range of options and healing systems. Depending upon practitioners’ interests and experience, they may suggest adjunctive Western therapies such as biofeedback, relaxation techniques, massage therapy, health coaching, and lifestyle medicine programs. Or they might consider Ayurvedic medicine that incorporates yoga, meditation, herbs, and dietary therapies based on the patient’s underlying constitution. Yet again, they may refer their patients to a practitioner of Eastern medicine. Like other healing systems, Eastern medicine is composed of various strands: dietary therapy, exercise, qigong, tai chi, meditation, bodywork, herbal formulas, and acupuncture. All of these complementary therapies are aimed at improving the physical, mental, and emotional health of the patient and modifying underlying behaviors that contribute to chronic disease.
Many medical practitioners and patients will have preferences regarding which therapeutic intervention to use. After discussing the options, they may decide to stick with one traditional system entirely or mix and match depending upon circumstances. For example, someone may respond well to Ayurvedic dietary therapy but have mobility problems and find it too difficult to get down on the floor to practice yoga. That person might do better with tai chi or qigong. Both of these Eastern practices will improve strength and balance as well as provide the preparation for meditation that yoga confers.
Two Systems Work Together
We too have our preferences. Our training in both Western and Eastern medicine has shown us that these two systems work extremely well together, and we are not alone. Over the span of two decades, the percentage of Western physicians who had a favorable opinion of Eastern medicine increased fourfold. In 1998, only 20 percent of respondents held a positive view of Eastern medicine. When the survey was repeated in 2009, that number had exploded to 80 percent!
Even the United States military has embraced a component of Eastern medicine. In 2007, the US Air Force asked Dr. Joseph Helms, the founding president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, to develop acupuncture protocols to treat conditions commonly found in combat veterans: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain, both acute and chronic. From 2008 to 2013, the US Department of Defense funded medical acupuncture training for hundreds of military doctors under the guidance of Dr. Helms. When this funding was no longer available, Dr. Helms created the Acus Foundation, a not-for-profit charitable organization, to continue training military health-care providers in medical acupuncture. Acus partnered with Nellis Air Force Base, training all the primary care physicians so that any patient could receive an acupuncture treatment at any visit upon request or recommendation. In the first year of this pilot program, opioid prescriptions dropped by 45 percent, muscle relaxant prescriptions decreased by 34 percent, and $250,000 were saved due to fewer referrals to civilian pain-management specialists.
Although you may not have access to a primary care provider who is also a skilled acupuncturist, you can rest assured that a great many Western physicians are genuinely interested in incorporating Eastern therapies into conventional medical care. Your doctor may already know a number of reputable practitioners of Eastern medicine and would be happy to refer you. Some patients are reluctant to bring up the topic of incorporating Eastern medicine into their usual treatment plan. They are worried that they will offend their doctors. In this day and age, with all the emerging evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture, meditative practices, and lifestyle changes, most physicians are open to adding these strategies to regular care. If your doctor is offended, we respectfully suggest you find a new primary care provider.
You will not know how your doctor feels about integrating Eastern and Western medicine until you have the conversation. As we discussed in our first book, True Wellness, there may be several reasons that your primary care provider has not spoken to you about these modalities. It may be that your doctor doesn’t know if Eastern medicine would be useful for your particular condition. Or she may not have access to reliable practitioners of Eastern medicine to whom she can send you. Or she may not want to suggest a therapy that might incur additional costs to you if your health insurance doesn’t cover these services. These reasons should not prevent you from discussing treatment options with your doctor.
To have a meaningful discussion, you should come to the appointment prepared. You need to do a little homework. Since the inception of the internet, most physicians are very comfortable with patients who have done some online research about their illness and are happy to go through the downloaded information with you. If you are going to present your doctor with such information, it is important that it has come from reputable sources. The World Health Organization report on acupuncture is a good place to start. You could also search the websites of several prominent medical centers that offer Eastern medical services and see what conditions they commonly treat.
You should call your health insurance company to see if Eastern medical services are a covered benefit and, if so, which providers are in the network. If this option is unavailable to you, you can cover the expense yourself, understanding that within three to five treatments you will know if they are beneficial. If you live near a school of Eastern medicine, there will be a community clinic where you can receive care for a reduced cost.
Now that you have determined for yourself whether Eastern medicine is a suitable modality for your condition and how you can access that care, you will feel more comfortable broaching the subject with your doctor. Generally, the situations in which patients explore options outside of biomedicine are those in which the patient is not improving. In cases where the problem is acute, Western treatment options usually solve things quickly.
For patients with chronic conditions, healing may be slower and require greater effort on the part of the patient and the physician. This is particularly true for patients who suffer from anxiety, depression, or sleep difficulties. Often both parties become frustrated with what appears to be a lack of progress. Eastern medicine is well suited to treat people in such circumstances. As we have mentioned previously, some patients do worry that their doctor would be offended at the suggestion of a complementary therapy, but in truth, that rarely happens. In our experience, most Western practitioners are interested only in their patients’ well-being and are delighted at the prospect of successful treatment through Eastern medicine.
Occasionally, in difficult cases where a patient has not improved with conventional treatments, a physician may feel a sense of failure or embarrassment that she has not been able to help that person sufficiently. Following an honest and respectful discussion of Western and Eastern treatment options, often doctors and patients alike are relieved that a new plan has been formulated. Although the Western physician may not be administering the Eastern treatment herself, she would still be a part of your health-care team and would certainly do her best to facilitate this new aspect of your care where possible.
Lastly, it is very important that you keep your doctor aware of any non-allopathic treatments that you are undergoing. Even if you have decided on your own to seek the help of an Eastern medical practitioner, your Western doctor needs to know this, particularly if you are taking any herbs or supplements. Many medications can interact with herbs, supplements, and foods, leading to dangerous situations in which the action of the drug is either accentuated or diminished, resulting in a medical complication.
Keep in mind that acupuncture and herbs, while extraordinarily effective, are not the only components of Eastern medicine. Acupuncture and herbs are treatments that are given to you by a skilled professional. But, healthy food, moderate exercise, and a quiet mind are the foundation of Eastern medicine as well as many other healing traditions. While both your Western and Eastern health-care providers can offer you encouragement and effective strategies to improve your physical and emotional well-being and sleep, only you can enact these changes to achieve optimal health.
The above is an excerpt from True Wellness The Mind: How to Combine the Best of Western and Eastern Medicine for Optimal Health by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc and Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT, Publication Date July 2019, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-664-9