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Why not alternative medicine? (Part 1 of a 3 part series)

As I was at the North American Veterinary Conference getting trained in acupuncture a few weeks ago and seeing first hand its benefits and practical applications, I really began to take a look at our western culture and how generally resistant it is to it and many other alternative treatment modalities.  The first question I pondered was, why not explore and offer these treatment modalities as part of an integrative medical approach to patient wellness?  In the process of mulling this around in my mind, in the past two weeks, two experiences/realizations made it abundantly clear exactly why our culture has heretofore been overwhelmingly dismissive of alternative medicine.

Before going further, it is first important to compare traditional western medicine with alternative medicine to provide a clear contrast of these different sides of medicine.  Western medicine is predicated upon the notion of identifying the disease and treating it directly: a pill here, a surgical procedure there, and the patient gets better…a lot of the time.  Alternative medicine is more geared toward boosting the body’s intrinsic ability to heal itself with modalities that include traditional Chinese medical alternatives such as herbal medicine and acupuncture, nutritional and nutraceutical therapy; as well as more high tech alternative options, such as low level laser tissue rehabilitation or electro-acupuncture.

The pros of the western approach is diagnostic capability (x-rays, blood work, ultrasound, blood pressure, etc.), often more immediate results, and the ability to save life through through the application of fluid therapy, pharmacological agents,  and hemorrhage control.  The main con of this approach is that application of these treatment modalities are frequently fraught with side effects.  In the case of chronic disease, long term drug therapy can range from causing side effects that range from mild to severe or even life threatening.  Invasive surgery can carry great risks are post-operative adverse effects that may last a lifetime.

The main pro of alternative medicine, is the management of disease without adverse side effects and often the ability to avoid invasive surgery and potentially harmful drug therapy.  The main con is the lack of diagnostic capability to provided a concrete diagnosis, and often it lacks real strategies for saving life in times of crisis (acute trauma, hemorrhage, shock, etc.).

So which is better?  Which one should we choose for ourselves and for our pets?  The answer it each of these questions is, BOTH.  The truth is that each branch of medicine has important practical application in treating disease and in the maintenance of wellness.  This combination holistic approach is called integrative medicine, meaning that we address the disease, utilizing diagnostics and managing pain, inflammation and life threatening circumstances, but then for the long term look to support the “whole” patient with optimal nutritional considerations and any combination of supplements, herbal therapy, acupuncture, and low level laser therapy.  That is what is best for the patient, and that is how everyone should be practicing medicine.

So why is this so often not the case?  Why do doctors, instead of practicing integrative medicine, opt instead to draw lines in the sand and refuse to acknowledge that both forms of medicine have their place in maintaining the wellness of a patient?  Well, ego probably plays a significant role in this circumstance, but I wish it were that simple.

The truth is, that there are two problems at work here.  The first is that we live in a fast paced, results based society that often demands immediate results and wish for a simple injection or pill to make the patient better so that he.she may get on with his/her life.  As an example, I have a friend who suffers from Crohn’s Disease, an often debilitating inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal system.  During times when he has taken the initiative to eat a well balanced diet with a lot of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, as well as probiotics (good GI bacteria) to promote good digestion, he has felt better and done better.  But…he is a very busy man and is tired when he gets home from work, so rather take the time to prepare healthy meals for each day or even cook at home, he often survives on fast food and vending machine foods for sustenance, and to tolerate it, has to load up on antacid and GI anti-inflammatory pills for days at a time.

 The other barrier for consideration of alternative therapy is from my view, the biggest obstacle: insurance companies.  In veterinary medicine, we do not have to deal with health insurance companies nearly on the same level as on the human side, but a lot of innovation in veterinary medicine has its roots in human medicine.  Pet owners’ expectations in the treatment of their pets also has its roots in their own experience with health care…they are less likely to be open to alternative medical therapy if none are ever offered for their own care.  The bottom line is that human health insurance companies will not cover alternative medical therapy, so even in the cases of western trained doctors that see that value in it (there are many more than people realize), they will not offer it, as they are not willing to offer any forms of therapy that their patient’s insurance company will not pay for.  I had a conversation with a human medical doctor just last week who is CEO of a company that runs five physical therapy locations in the county I live.  When I mentioned to him that I offer low level laser therapy to my patients and asked if he offers it to his, he told me flat out no.  He intimated that he is thrilled to see it gaining such momentum in veterinary medicine because the data is there that proves that it works, but he cannot offer it because none of his patients’ insurance plans will cover it, end of story

In my next post/episode, I will discuss practical applications of integrative medicine that I am using in my practice.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL and founder/CEO of Web-DVM.net.

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