Does Integrative Medicine Really Work?

Sixteen years after Northwestern Memorial became one of the first U.S. hospitals to offer conventional and alternative medicines, questions remain about the latter treatments’ efficacy.

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Illustration by Tim Foley

Illustration: Tim Foley

Approach a certain address on Huron Street a few blocks from Lake Michigan, and past the receptionist area you enter a world of gently curving feng shui–approved walls painted in soothing tones of light green and yellow. A recording of flute music plays quietly in the background. Doors are adorned with signs that say things like “Nature,” “Harmony,” “Peace,” and “Believe.”

A high-end spa? The site of a Buddhist retreat? Nope: the offices of Northwestern Integrative Medicine.

Backed by one of the nation’s best hospitals, Northwestern Memorial, this health center is as unconventional as it looks. It dishes out a combination of modern medicine and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes acupuncture, biofeedback, massage, Reiki, and Chinese herbal remedies. (For descriptions, see “What It May Cost You.”) “Many alternative therapies have immense benefit for patients,” says Melinda Ring, a stylish board-certified internist and Reiki master who has been Northwestern’s integrative medical director for the past six years.

What’s really immense is the demand for unconventional treatments. According to 2007 data (the most recent available) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38 percent of adults turned to CAM that year, spending nearly $34 billion. No surprise, then, that the percentage of U.S. hospitals offering such treatments has zoomed: from 14 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2010, according to the American Hospital Association. In the Chicago area, integrative medicine is also offered by Rush University Medical Center and NorthShore University HealthSystem, among others.

There’s just one problem: Most alternative treatments haven’t been scientifically proven to work. At least not yet. So health insurers, which demand evidence of efficacy, refuse to cover most of them.

The hope was that hospitals and others would fix the lack of proof by conducting rigorous clinical trials. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health created the Office of Alternative Medicine (now the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) to conduct and fund just such research. Two decades later, few of the treatments studied look to perform much better than placebos.

Yet hospitals seem loath to curb what have become big crowd pleasers. The situation raises important questions about what role medical institutions should play in the prevention and treatment of disease. Hospitals are supposed to deliver care that works, say critics such as Paul Offit, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the buzzed-about new book Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. Isn’t that the point?

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11 months ago
Posted by Hey Youse Guys

Hmmm, makes me wonder why the writer of this article, or Dr Gorski, who I'm sure is probably an excellent surgeon and/or Dr Offit, who is the head of infectious diseases, don't mention about head-to-head comparisons of how successful and harmless allopathic and invasive treatments are COMPARED to these drug-less and non-invasive alternative options?

According to the AMA's own news statistics a dozen years ago, drug related "problems" alone have been killing as many as 198,815 people each and every year, put 8.8 million IN hospitals, and account for up to 28% of hospital admissions! The total number of iatrogenic deaths (deaths caused by medical treatments as the primary reason for the death) is 783,936 annually!

According to the "EVIDENCED BASED" statistics, the problem is not getting better with the bevy of "new" AMA improved drugs either, but rather side effects and iatrogenic deaths are increasing each and every year (not sure, maybe because they are reporting them more?).

The number of unnecessary medical and surgical procedures performed annually is 7.5 million. Seven and a half MILLION!!! Did you get that Dr. Gorski - 7.5 million people having unnecessary procedures by your own non-quack peers. Those are crazy numbers!

The number of people exposed to unnecessary hospitalization annually is 8.9 million. It's clear from these numbers that the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the United States. The 2001 heart disease annual death rate is 699,697; the annual cancer death rate, 553,251 while the number one killer in a society is the healthcare system. That system has no excuse except to address its own urgent shortcomings while alternative medicine has killed how many? Pinprick deaths from acupuncture needles? Bruise deaths from massage? It's a failed system in need of immediate attention.

So when I have pain in my neck and get my horrendous headaches, I go to my Naprapath (who practices in Lincoln Park on Lincoln Ave) who manually digs out my tension with his hands (who by the way spends around 30 to 45 minutes with me talking to me about stress, diet and nutrition) and I get almost full and total relief for many days, as opposed to the 10 years I spent going to a bunch of other "doctors" who never gave me any true relief - I then just don't understand why don't they seem to acknowledge that my subjective relief is better than their "scientific studies" and their drugs tell me I should be better when I wasn't?

Press on my neck, I feel better. Novel idea. Give me a drug and I get stomach ulcers, trashed liver, and it doesn't even work other than to dull the pain ... then I am compelled to take another and another pill. It just seems like a recipe for profit for drug companies and the doctors are merely supporting those needs for profit in a sick system! Hrumph!

11 months ago
Posted by empoweradvocate

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Section 2706, "Non-discrimination in health care", is set to go into effect January, 2014. States will be obligated to not allow insurers to discriminate against any licensed health care providers working within their scope of practice to address any of the conditions covered by insurer plans. So, for the first time, integrative licensed providers ( acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, midwives, naturopaths) will receive equal treatment by the reimbursable insured U.S. health care system. It's not surprising that there's been a surge of pro-discrimination activists wanting to dismantle the law. Recently it's been coming from professional organizations representing family doctors, ophthalmologists, dermatologists, anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, obstetricians, and otolaryngologists. How about a different approach? Try coming out of the medical silos, learning about other healing modalities, collaborating, including rather than excluding, and actually offering options that benefit the patient. That would be a big step in finding a solution to the costly, wasteful, destructive medical outcomes that we've seen with conventional medical care. (more info about PPACA, section 2706 here:

10 months ago
Posted by JLM

$112.00 for a one-hour massage? That's a bit high.

8 months ago
Posted by peterparks

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