Health On The Edge: Medicine in the 21st Century

A revolution in US healthcare is underway—but while we’ve come a long way, there’s still a lot of ground left to cover.
By Larry Trivieri JR

A lot has changed in the world of alternative medicine since the early 1990s, when I first edited Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide.

At that time, alternative medicine was largely considered a “fringe” movement by the mainstream medical establishment, even though, as Harvard’s Dr. David Eisenberg documented in a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, 34 percent of all Americans at that time were choosing some form of alternative medicine over conventional medical care.

Since then, that number has grown, as evidenced by a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 2002 that found that 74.6 percent of all adults in the United States had used some form of alternative medicine.

Recognizing this trend, an increasing number of US medical and nursing schools also offer, and in many cases require, some kind of alternative medicine coursework. As early as 1998, the American Medical Association (AMA) reported that some aspect of alternative medicine was being taught in 64 percent of US medical schools. By 2005, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, that figure rose to 75 percent. Similarly, by 2003 nearly 85 percent of US nursing schools also offered courses in alternative medicine.

In the face of growing demand for viable alternative therapies on the part of consumers, the AMA has also instructed its member physicians to become more familiar with alternative medical practices. By the start of the 21st century, 72 percent of US pharmacy colleges were also offering courses in herbal medicine and other aspects of alternative medicine. In addition, the American Hospital Association reports that the percentage of hospitals offering one or more alternative medicine services increased from 8 percent in 1998 to 27 percent in 2005.

While these developments may have seemed unthinkable two decades ago, in actuality they are not surprising. That’s because a revolution in health care is inexorably taking place in the United States, as well as elsewhere around the world. And what distinguishes it from most other momentous changes that are also sweeping through society today is the fact that it is not being sparked by leaders in the healthcare field, nor by our elected officials, but by burgeoning numbers of laypeople just like you and me who are seeking more effective solutions to their health and wellness needs.

The reason for that search is simple: Despite more than a century of remarkable diagnostic and therapeutic advances in the field of conventional medicine, chronic illness continues to spread at an alarming rate and is proving increasingly impervious to the mainstays of conventional medicine—drugs and surgery. Additionally, more and more patients are looking for health care approaches that address their specific and unique needs, rather than merely treating their symptoms.

This grassroots groundswell demand for more effective and cost-efficient health care is also, of course, closely tied to our nation’s mounting health-care crisis. Back in 1992, our nation spent just over $1.2 trillion each year on health-care costs. At that time, research found that 85 percent of that cost was spent on care for patients suffering from some type of chronic illness. Not surprisingly, 85 percent of all diseases in the US at that time were also chronic in nature. Today, US health-care costs have more than doubled, verging close to $3 trillion annually, and chronic disease rates have not declined. Despite such exorbitant costs, which account for nearly 17 percent of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the United States ranks a dismal 42nd among all nations in terms of life expectancy. Clearly, this is not a problem that can be fixed by providing health-insurance coverage to everyone, as Obamacare, whether you agree with it or not, is intended to do.

To truly address our nation’s health-care crisis requires focused and intelligent action on a number of fronts, including improving our nation’s dietary habits, which rank among the worst in the world; cleaning up the health-ravaging toxins that are still rampant within our environment, and which are known to cause certain types of cancer and other serious illness; and more effectively screening patients before disease sets in so that it can be prevented or more easily reversed.

In line with these measures, our concept of medicine and how it works also needs serious rethinking. In recent years, such thinking has begun to emerge, as evidenced by the renaming of alternative medicine by some to complementary and, more recently, integrative medicine. Such terms imply what is increasingly becoming evident to many in both the alternative and conventional medical fields, namely that alternative medicine needs to play an increasing role within the world of mainstream medicine.

But integrating alternative medicine into the current conventional medical paradigm does not go far enough. While increasing numbers of conventional MDs, nurses, and other health practitioners who complement their therapies with certain alternatives certainly is a welcome change, it falls far short of recognizing how appropriate alternative medicine is. Not as a complementary adjunct to traditional medical care, but as a primary treatment option that should be employed first—leaving drugs and surgery aside except in the times when they are most needed (usually acute emergencies).

A real system of integrative medicine, like an effective and efficiently operating sports team, plays to the strengths of its many treatment options, and minimizes its weaknesses. Knowing what those strengths and weaknesses are, therefore, is of paramount importance. Fortunately, when it comes to medicine, determining what they are is relatively easy, as the comparison below shows:
 

 

Alternative Medicine

Conventional Medicine

Primary Focus

Prevention; whole-person care that seeks to address multifactorial, underlying causes

Primarily symptom care

Treatment Methods

Wide range of therapies, including diet and nutrition, lifestyle reeducation, stress management, mind-body medicine, etc; with an emphasis on patient self-empowerment

Primarily drugs and/or surgery

Strengths

Empowers patients to take control of their own health; excellent for preventing and treating chronic disease; cost effective; safe

Highly effective in treating both acute and life-threatening illnesses and injuries; continues to advance diagnostic technologies

Best Suited For

Patient education, prevention, chronic disease

Acute and life-threatening disease and injuries

Weaknesses

Shortage of alternative medicine providers nationwide; treatment options often not covered by insurance; can be labor-intensive for both patient and provider depending on degree of underlying causes related to illness; proper training and certifying processes are sometimes lacking, depending on therapy type

Largely ineffective for preventing and reversing chronic disease; can be highly expensive; drugs employed can often cause serious, and even fatal, side effects

 

Based on this comparison, it is obvious that how and why both conventional and alternative medicine are used needs to be reconsidered. If 85 percent of our nation’s diseases are chronic and non-life threatening in nature, shouldn’t alternative therapies that are proven to be beneficial for such conditions (allergies, back and chronic pain, headaches, GI disorders, respiratory conditions, etc.) be the first choice of treatment, instead of ongoing symptom care with an over-reliance on drugs? Especially when such treatments typically cost less (even when paid for out-of-pocket), are free of side effects, and, most importantly, are far more likely to discover and eliminate the root causes of such conditions?

Just as we need to continue to support the advances occurring within the field of conventional medicine, so must we allocate increasing support to the innovations and solutions found in the alternative medicine field. (The National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends over $31 billion each year on medical research. Of that amount, only $132 million is budgeted for the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.)

In addition, moving in line with President Obama’s and the First Lady’s recent emphasis on healthy eating and prevention of disease, shouldn’t we be looking to actual experts in these areas from within the alternative medical field in which prevention, diet, and healthy lifestyle are basic and vital tenets, instead of spokespersons and policymakers with little or no expertise in these areas, who all-too-often also have ties to corporate interests that profit from the very lack of such tenets in the lives of most Americans?

And if, as studies show, alternative medical approaches are by and large far less costly than those of conventional medical practices, shouldn’t alternative medicine be more widely covered by health insurance companies and be fully considered by those who are charged with solving today’s health care crisis, as well as making alternative medicine more available within our nation’s hospitals and health clinics?

My answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. However, we cannot wait for our elected leaders to make such moves for us. Too much is at stake for that. Instead, all of us who are vitally concerned with keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy must continue to do all we can to educate ourselves about what it truly means to be healthy, not simply symptom-free. And we also need to vote with our wallets and pocketbooks. After all, it was our choices over the last two decades that caused the medical establishment to become more receptive to learning more about the worthwhile options alternative medicine can provide. In the end, it was consumer demand, not legislation, that brought this change about. But many doors still remain to be opened. I’m convinced that they will be—and sooner rather than later. For out of crisis comes opportunity; and alternative medicine’s opportunity is now.

Health & Blessings!

Larry Trivieri Jr. is recognized as a lay-expert in health and healing and has authored more than a dozen books on the subject over 30 years.