Medicine is undergoing a quiet revolution. Only a few years ago, most mainstream physicians and practitioners of alternative therapies tended to view each other with suspicion, if not disdain. Physicians often charged that alternative practitioners were charlatans; in turn, therapists outside of the mainstream claimed that doctors relied too much on potentially dangerous drugs and surgery, and were so overly specialized that they failed to treat the patient as a whole.
Increasingly, both camps are recognizing that each has a place in the healing process a trend that is being embraced by a growing number of patients. For example, at least one third of respondents in a 1990 Harvard Medical School survey said that they had been to alternative practitioners. Most patients also saw physicians, but the researchers estimated that visits to alternative practitioners actually exceeded those to primary care physicians. In keeping with the trend, some insurance policies now cover certain alternative therapies, especially if the treatments are recommended by a physician.
The Historic Perspective
Until the early part of the 20th century, physicians and alternative practitioners competed more or less on equal footing in America, because there were few standards or regulations. Thus, the traveling medicine man could legally call himself a doctor and peddle worthless patent medicines. This changed dramatically in 1910, when strict standards, based on scientific principles, were adopted for medical schools. Within a few years, only graduates of accredited medical schools could join the American Medical Association, and practitioners of homeopathy, chiropractic, naturopathy, and other “unorthodox” disciplines were shunned by scientific medicine. If the benefits of a therapy could not be documented scientifically, it was discounted as worthless. Some, such as homeopathy, virtually disappeared, and others, such as chiropractic, were relegated to a questionable gray area. Of course, real quackery did not disappear, but government agencies and regulations made life more difficult for charlatans as well as for legitimate alternative practitioners.
Searching for A Common Ground
The pendulum began to swing back with the development of osteopathy and psychiatry as recognized medical specialties, and acceptance of the ancient observation that emotional factors play an important role in health and illness. The 1960s brought renewed interest in Eastern philosophy and healing practices, as well as growing polarization between scientific medicine and alternative therapies. Still, it became increasingly difficult for physicians to discount benefits of certain alternative practices, and conventional medicine started to embrace some of them. In particular, pain clinics began to incorporate such therapies as acupuncture, meditation, and biofeedback training into their therapeutic regimens. As college graduates of the sixties matured and some entered medical school, a middle ground began to emerge between the two opposing groups. There are still diehards at each extreme, but their numbers are decreasing as more physicians and alternative practitioners recognize that neither has all of the answers but both have things to offer. The basic principles and modalities of conventional medicine are discussed on pages 24-31, while natural, or alternative, therapies are covered on pages 32-61.