Look for Love in Other Places—Communicate With Alternative\Complementary Providers

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Neil Baum, MD

Clinical Associate Professor of Urology, Tulane Medical School, New Orleans, LA

Author, Marketing Your Clinical Practice-Ethically, Effectively, and Economically, Jones Bartlett Publishers


Years ago, doctors could be negative and discourage patients from using alternative medicine without risking the success of their practice. But that is no longer the case. Let us begin with a story of a patient who went to see an orthopedist for low-back pain. The orthopedist took the history and asked the patient to describe any previous therapy he had for his back. When the patient mentioned his visit to a chiropractor, the insulted physician immediately responded with, "What did that fool tell you?" The patient replied, "Well, he sent me to you!"

There is a consistent increase in the number of patients who are turning to alternative medicine for the treatment of their illnesses and conditions. Alternative medicine is becoming mainstream, and it is hear to stay. Every doctor has seen dozens, if not hundreds, of patients who have self-treated with saw palmetto, used Yohimbine to treat erectile dysfunction, or used Echinacea to treat the common cold. Alternative or complimentary medicine is any nontraditional healthcare treatment used by physicians to replace the popularly accepted and practiced type of treatment; these alternatives are usually not taught in medical schools or practiced by conventional allopathic physicians. Examples of alternative medicine include acupuncture, hypnotherapy, massage therapy, chiropractic medicine, herbal and nutritional supplements, homeopathy, and even prayer.

Trends and Facts

  • In 1997, 40% of America sought a complementary or alternative medicine to aid with an illness or pain-related complaint.
  • An estimated 27 billion dollars was paid for these services out-of-pocket.
  • The number of visits to alternative practitioners increased 50% between 1990 and 1997.
  • 700 million visits were made to these providers in 1999, while only 340 million visits were made to physicians practicing conventional medicine.
  • Patients are willing to pay out of pocket for alternative medicine and now some insurance companies are even agreeing to pay for certain kinds of alternative medicine.
  • Published newsletters, written by physicians, are dedicated to alternative medicine, including in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • In 1998, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established.
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has earmarked millions of dollars to study alternative medicine.
  • Duke University has established a center for integrative medicine with an annual conference on alternative medicine


Make alternative medicine an ally—not an adversary: Think about unconventional therapies as an opportunity to incorporate alternative medical options into your conventional medical therapy. Consider alternative medicine as complementary medicine, using these nontraditional treatments as a complement to the ordinary treatment. Using the conventional medicine as the primary method, allow the other forms to support your patient and your practice. The most popular integrative approaches include physical therapies, such as yoga, massages, chiropractic services, and acupressure treatment. Mind-body techniques, such as biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and meditation, are also common. Patients often turn to nutritional therapy and osteopathic medicine for additional health benefits.

Don’t let your patients get caught in the web of the Internet: Many studies have demonstrated that patients learn about alternative therapy from articles on the Internet. You can demonstrate your acceptance and knowledge of this subject by providing articles and information on your Website and also providing links to reliable resources on alternative medicine. Also, offer a pamphlet with Websites you have visited and you trust. Make sure to promote Websites that are truthful, unbiased, informative, and relatively easy to use. Try to lead patients to Websites that are strictly for information, rather than trying to sell a product. The sites that try to sell a product do not mention potential side effects and dangers. Information sites are more comprehensive and offer an unbiased approach. Be sure someone in your practice checks the sites you recommend every couple of months to make sure they are still reliable and effective.

Examples of reliable sites include the following:

Bottom line: Alternative medicine is attracting thousands and even millions of Americans. More patients continue to seek alternative treatments. Perhaps physicians have to do a little soul-searching and recognize that we are not meeting the needs and wants of their patients who are turning to alternative providers for help and assistance. We can turn this trend around by making an effort to embrace the alternative therapies and incorporate certain aspects of their philosophies into conventional medicine. Some physicians have become very successful by embracing alternative medicine and incorporating it into their practices, including such prestigious doctors as Andrew Weil and Depok Chopra. Let alternative medicine be an opportunity, and not an obstacle, for you to reach similar success.