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Eastbound Training

Western doctors' attitudes toward alternative medicine are shifting as more M.D.s integrate treatment traditions

By Rebecca Patt

IN EASTERN MEDICINE, "chi"--meaning the integration of mind, body and spirit that makes up a person's life force--is possibly the most powerful of all healing concepts.

Conventional Western medicine has no word for it. And no one seemed to think they'd ever need one.

On the contrary, Western medicine made its name on a powerful distaste for such an idea, with a medical discipline that generally separates the problems of the body from the problems of the mind. And for years in this country, it was the only game in town.

But you can't, it seems, keep thousands of years of tradition down. Alternative medicine has now gone mainstream, with recent studies showing that more than half of Americans are seeking out non-Western wellness. And in the process the East vs. West issue has become a whole other kind of health care debate, with alternative-healing advocates often looking down upon the "rigidness" of Western medicine with the same dismissiveness long doled out to them by many a med-school graduate.

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Peace in Our Time

But a lasting truce in this philosophical battle royale may finally be in sight. Spurred on recently by Dr. Andrew Weil, who started an integrative medicine program at the University of Arizona, a movement is under way in medicine to take the best of alternative therapies and integrate them with mainstream Western practice.

As you might expect, Santa Cruz is somewhat ahead of the curve, with many doctors here open to both traditions.

"For me, real healing is about integrating what works," says Dr. Daniel Blumberg, an M.D. who blends psychotherapy with natural alternatives to medication such as hypnosis and meditation.

Blumberg says he doesn't have proof that alternative medicine is necessarily more effective than Western, "but there are certain areas where things like relaxation training may be much better than drugs for going to sleep. If something is safe and relatively inexpensive, that may be a lot better than drugs that can be addictive or problematic."

But how much better we don't know. And not everyone wants us to. It is difficult to fairly evaluate alternative medicine, says Blumberg, because conventional medicine is so heavily financed by large drug companies.

"In 1993, I calculated that drug companies spend $15,000 per physician per year to educate them," he said. "Drug companies are the major funding source that supplies information to doctors, and this may influence to the point that other alternatives are not considered carefully."

Conventional medicine also has a huge and powerful research machine behind it that has led to the discovery of many treatments that alternative medicine doesn't enter into, says Dr. Steve Ellis, a practitioner of osteopathic manipulation.

"Allopathic medicine is really, really strict and has very high standards in terms of what you can use. Things have to be very scientifically demonstrated, and that's led to the discovery of a lot of treatments," says Ellis. "Probably the deepest example of that would be cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Another area would be epidemiology and infectious disease control."

Physician, Free Thy Self

And yet it is the rising demand for more options that is driving the rising popularity of alternative therapies, according to Dr. Bruce Eisendorf, a former student of Weil's who practices conventional medicine at the Santa Cruz Medical Clinic while also leading a support group for people who are seeking to use the power of the mind to facilitate healing.

Some of the benefits of alternative medicines, says Eisendorf, are that they have a gentler approach, sometimes carry fewer risks and side effects and encourage people to take better care of their own health.

Dr. Erin O'Shaughnessy, clinical program director of the Elysium Wellness Center and also a psychotherapist with a private practice, says that she's come to understand that traditional Western medicine is great for emergencies--when someone has an acute condition and their life needs to be saved in a dramatic way--while alternative medicine tends to work better with more chronic medical conditions. She says that Western medicine often attempts to reverse or mask symptoms and put a quick fix on things without taking into account the possibility that the person may be fundamentally out of whack.

"Alternative medicine tends to approach the whole person more, looking at bringing them into balance on all levels, not just symptoms but mentally, emotionally, physically and socially," says O'Shaughnessy.

O'Shaughnessy says that in mental health the Western model tends to be very compliance-based, meaning that the measure of whether a patient is ready to go home or not is how compliant they are in taking their medications and cooperating with the doctors instead of becoming more responsible for their own healing and making their own choices.

"Alternative medicine wants them to come to it with their own intent and trigger their own process, as opposed to having somebody do something to them. Alternative medicine tends to address things more like diet, meditation and chi gong practice, and all those things that help a person draw on all their inner resources," says O'Shaughnessy. "Often the very thing that's missing is they don't have their own sense of integrity and a locus of control. It's either going to come from the inside or it's going to come from the outside."

Eisendorf says that the popular demand is motivating more Western doctors to finally make the concept of chi a part of their vocabulary.

"Change seems to come slowly in the medical field," he says, "but I think it's inevitable."

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From the July 31-August 7, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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