Regular visits to the doctor, prescription drugs and surgical treatments are staples of modern medical care. But up to 50 percent of Americans are now looking beyond traditional Western medicine to take control of their health, using everything from aromatherapy to meditation for mind-body wellness and to help ward off or treat illnesses. Complementary and […]

Regular visits to the doctor, prescription drugs and surgical treatments are staples of modern medical care. But up to 50 percent of Americans are now looking beyond traditional Western medicine to take control of their health, using everything from aromatherapy to meditation for mind-body wellness and to help ward off or treat illnesses.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy, yoga, tai chi, meditation, nutrition, music and art therapy, exercise, hypnosis, biofeedback, herbs, energy healing (e.g., Reiki) and spiritual care. Vitamins and even laughter may be considered complementary medicine.

And the good news is insurance companies are starting to cover some treatments, though coverage varies widely. For example, the Aurora Women’s Pavilion offers acupuncture services, though less than half of all insurance companies cover it, and those that do have further restrictions on who can administer the treatment, says Terese Beauchamp, regional manager of women’s health education.

Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin offers discounts on some complementary products and services through its Special Offers program. If your insurance doesn’t cover your preferred therapy, check with the IRS or your accountant to find out which CAM treatments can be covered by your health savings account.

Meanwhile, research studies increasingly show the health benefits of complementary care. “There’s lots of evidence that acupuncture and nutrition and exercise and yoga help,” says Dr. Richard A. Cooper, professor of medicine and senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. “One by one, they’ve been looked at.”

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Cooper is the former dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin who published the first workforce study of complementary medicine providers – chiropractors, acupuncturists and naturopaths. He predicted that between 1994 and 2010, the number of these practitioners would increase by 88 percent, while the supply of traditional physicians would increase just 16 percent.

Medical schools began teaching CAM courses in the 1990s. Hospitals everywhere are now proclaiming their expertise in “integrative medicine” (combining traditional medicine with some CAM therapies). And the National Institutes of Health has its own National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

A recent Harvard Medical School study examined 20 complementary and alternative treatments among various demographic groups. “The findings really dispel two ideas, namely that complementary and alternative medicine is just a passing fad, and that it is used by one particular segment of society,” notes study author Ronald Kessler, a Harvard professor of health care policy.


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Milwaukee-area hospitals offer a variety of public classes, lectures and health screenings to promote services and address community needs. There’s an especially high demand for stress management techniques.

The birth of health resource centers – like Small Stones through Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, or Medical Associates’ Crossings Medical & Well-being Center – has provided additional support for CAM believers. Small Stones has a monthly book club focusing on the mind-body connection. People are coming to physicians for more than just treatment, says Traci Meyer, community education coordinator for Froedtert & Community Health. “Mind-body-spirit is about overall health and wellness. If we help them internally, they may flourish externally.”

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Programming at Froedtert Hospital largely focuses on chronic disease management (e.g., heart disease, diabetes) and new technologies, says Meyer. “We sprinkle in some complementary medicine classes, particularly in stress management and meditation. People are working nine, 10, 11 hours a day, and they need a break from reality and to take time for themselves.”

Aurora’s Beauchamp agrees. “Lifestyle-related requests are always a big thing,” she says. “As long as I’ve been in this role, stress management has been the No. 1 requested topic.”

Aurora offers a mindfulness-based stress reduction class that combines meditation with body awareness – how the body feels and responds to a specific situation.

“Mindfulness makes you aware of the situation so you can change your response to it,” Beauchamp says. Correcting the problem before physical symptoms develop is the goal.

Acupuncture as well as other Eastern medicine approaches focus on the mind-body connection. “It’s thought that our body is an energy system and we can affect the flow of energy,” Beauchamp explains. “And the flow of energy can improve or decrease our health. But it’s important to remember that complementary medicine is not a substitute for eating well, exercising or traditional medicine.”

Cooper warns there are “quacks” offering feel-better schemes for complementary medicine. “But if hospitals are doing it,” he says, “chances are it has a legitimate place in the overall spectrum of care.” 


Scott R. Weinberger is a frequent contributor to Milwaukee Magazine.

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