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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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