The New Alternative Medicine: Natural Cures for Women
How to Tap into the TrendGoing Mainstream
The switch from "alternative" to "integrative" has been slow, albeit steady, and not all doctors are on board. But patient demand is pushing physicians to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about nontraditional treatments, and a body of research is building. "Patients used to come in with questions about treatments, and we didn't have answers. If you wanted to know whether acupuncture could help, there weren't 10 good studies we could pull, and that was frustrating," says Dr. Bauer. That started to change in 1992, with the establishment of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) within the National Institutes of Health. With the support of lawmakers, the office started funneling money into studies of alternative therapies. By 1999, the OAM had morphed into an NIH Center -- the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), with a $50 million budget. "With funds available, more researchers began to say, 'Maybe there is something here,' and started studying," says Dr. Dobs. "As a result, there's now a base of knowledge that many doctors feel comfortable with."5 Steps You Can Take
Not every town has a world-class medical school with doctors trained in integrative medicine. But many MDs have some familiarity with alternative therapies and can refer you to practitioners. Here's how to identify therapies for you -- and find someone qualified to administer them.
1. Do research online.
Put the most trust in reputable institutions like the NCCAM (nccam.nih.gov) and academic sources like the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine, which has an extensive online library (umm.edu/altmed). The National Library of Medicine (nlm.nih.gov) lets you search published studies easily. Type the words "review" or "meta-analysis" into your search to bring up articles that summarize all the research out there on a treatment, says Dr. Dobs.
2. Run it past your doctor.
"Say, 'I'm interested in XYZ and I'd like your opinion,'" recommends Sara Warber, MD, who trained with a Native American healer before she became a doctor and, eventually, codirector of the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine program. "That won't put your physician on the defensive, and it gives him or her an opportunity to weigh in." Also pay attention to how the doctor phrases a response. "Loaded words like 'worthless,' 'junk' and 'waste of money' are the language of bias, not knowledge," says Dr. Warber. "A knowledgeable doctor can make the same point by saying something like, 'The current evidence doesn't support this treatment, but it doesn't appear to be harmful.'" A physician who doesn't know a lot about the therapy you're interested in should refer you to someone who does.
3. Evaluate practitioners.
Check national certifying organizations, such as the American Herbalists Guild or the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, to find practitioners near you who meet the group's professional standards. For links to a wide range of professional organizations, go to the American Holistic Health Association at ahha.org.
4. Meet the expert.
Choose a doctor who sees your treatment as a complement to medical care -- not a replacement -- then sit down to talk. "Often, patients have never told anyone the whole story of their illness, and that alone can be therapeutic," says Dr. Warber. In addition to your medical history, Dr. Gaudet explains that she wants to know about the psychological and spiritual aspects. "Health extends beyond the physical body," she adds.
5. Discuss the downsides.
Natural doesn't mean harmless. Talk with your doctor about a treatment's potential side effects and whether it could cause drug interactions with any other medicine you're taking. Because few doctors have extensive background in complementary medicine, there's a greater burden on patients to do the homework about treatment options, says Dr. Bauer. But those who do say it's worth the effort. Says Granai, "Integrative medicine played a big part in saving my pregnancy -- and probably my life."
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