The new integrated approach to medicine-combining the most effective alternative and conventional treatments-can feel liberating. But it can also be confusing. Which therapy should you choose? How long should you try it before moving on? Should you try one therapy at a time or several at once?
These questions are moot if you patronize one of the growing number of blended-medicine clinics, which house mainstream doctors and alternative practitioners under one roof. Unfortunately, these medical “department stores” are not yet accessible to all Americans, although more of them are springing up all around the nation.
Most folks must settle for medical “boutiques;’ in which the professional staff favors one discipline to the exclusion of all others. So patients looking for a solution that lies outside the medical mainstream may find themselves moving from one practitioner to another until they find a therapy that works.
Tips for Findling Your Best Choice in Healing
Choosing from among the many alternative and conventional healing options now available can be difficult. There is no single right way to proceed. But these guidelines can help you find your way through the health-care maze.
Stay well. All of the approaches to selfcare described in previous chapters support good health. But the most effective way to stay well is to embrace the health-promoting quartet: Practice good nutrition, get regular moderate exercise, manage stress, and develop your connectedness to others and to the natural world. “These four elements keep your immune system in top condition, so you resist most illnesses and recover quickly from the ones you can’t avoid,” says Michael Lerner, Ph.D., cofounder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, an organization in Bolinas, California, that assists cancer patients.
Practice home care. If you do get sick, proper home care can go a long way toward getting you back on your feet. Most minor ailments respond well to some combination of rest, over-the-counter medications, and self-administered alternative remedies such as herbs, acupressure, and yoga. But use common sense: If your condition does not improve despite a week of home care, or if any symptom worsens, consult a physician promptly.
Call a mainstream M.D. If professional care seems justified, or if your health problem doesn’t respond to home care within a week, consult a mainstream physician-ideally one who is open to blending conventional and alternative treatments.
Why a mainstream physician? “Because the first question you want answered is ‘Do I have something really serious?’ ” says Richard Jenkins, M.D., a physician and homeopath in San Francisco. “Mainstream medicine is very good at detecting and treating potentially life-threatening conditions. Starting there is prudent.”
What’s more, if you have a serious health problem, you’ll want to get an accurate diagnosis and start treatment as quickly as possible. A mainstream doctor has the tools to stabilize your condition right away. Later, you can add alternative therapies to speed your recovery and enhance your well-being. Relaxation therapies such as meditation and visualization can be especially helpful since serious illness often causes a lot of stress.
Identify an open-minded doc. To find a mainstream M.D. who’s receptive to alternative therapies, start by asking around. You may get helpful leads from family members and friends-or you might make connections through self-help groups or people who share a religious affliation. Also, many alternative health organizations offer referrals.
Briefly interview prospective doctors over the phone. Mention that you prefer combining mainstream approaches with alternative therapies and see how they react.
Discuss benefits and side effects. If you have a less serious health problem or a health problem that seems to defy diagnosis, you may want to venture outside the medical mainstream and explore other avenues of healing. Before you do, ask your M.D. about the benefits and possible side effects of any mainstream options that he suggests. In addition, ask which alternative therapies might help. Then think about how you would like to proceed.
Once you’ve decided what to do, explain your plan to your M.D. He should be aware of any other therapies that you’re trying, especially if you’re taking pharmaceuticals. Besides, you don’t gain anything by keeping your doctor in the dark. In fact, many mainstream physicians are curious about the outcomes of alternative therapies.
Keep asking. Sometimes a doctor will say, “There’s nothing wrong with you:” Many people find this infuriating: “What do you mean there’s nothing wrong with me? I’m not imagining my symptoms!”
In most cases, what the doctor actually means is that mainstream diagnostic tests can’t find any abnormalities that send up a red flag. Though this is frustrating, it’s also good news. It means that standard medical tests aren’t showing any life-threatening conditions.
So if your doctor says that there’s nothing wrong with you, try not to feel as though you’ve been dismissed or your sanity has been called into question. Instead, feel free to look elsewhere for answers. Alternative practitioners may not make a conclusive diagnosis either. But they can still offer you options for pain relief, recovery, and healing.
Consult an alternative practitioner. “Mainstream medicine is least effective at treating chronic conditions and vague discomforts that don’t fit its criteria of disease,” says Deepak Chopra, M.D., creative director and cofounder of the Chopra Center for Well-Being in La Jolla, California. If your health problem fits into the “chronic or vague” category, you can opt to combine mainstream and alternative treatments or to go completely alternative.
Which alternative therapy should you start with? If a mainstream M.D. hasn’t given you a diagnosis, you might want to begin by consulting a practitioner of homeopathy, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, or naturopathy. Because these alternative healing systems have different philosophies of health and disease, one of them may be able to provide a satisfactory diagnosis when mainstream medicine cannot.
Give a treatment a chance to work. How long should you continue with one treatment before you move on to another one? That depends on how long you’ve had your condition and how much discomfort it’s causing. “If you’re in severe pain and mainstream medicine doesn’t help within a day or two, then by all means try something else,” advises Alan P. Brauer, M.D. “But if you have a chronic condition that’s persisted for several years, you can give a therapy a few months to work before moving on to something else.”
Keep everyone informed. If you change practitioners, be sure to tell your new practitioner about the M.D.’s or practitioners you’ve already consulted. Also, discuss how well or how poorly each previous therapy worked.
Some people are reluctant to tell their M.D.’s that they’ve been to alternative practitioners. But Dr. Jenkins urges folks to speak up. “To be effective, your practitioner needs to see the big picture-what’s going on with you and everything you’ve tried;’ he explains.
Create a health-care team. You’re the manager of your health-care team-and every practitioner that you see automatically becomes a member. Check back regularly with those you like, even if they didn’t cure you. They may have valuable insights as you pursue other therapies. If you get the best relief from a combination of therapies, urge their respective practitioners to discuss your situation with one another.
Persevere. “No single therapeutic approach provides all of the answers for everyone,” says Anne Simons, M.D. “But most therapies have some good answers for some people.”
Yes, moving from one practitioner to another can be frustrating. But it’s far better than giving up. Because by every measure, your health suffers when you give up: Stress increases and your immune system becomes impaired. So keep trying. Ultimately, your best choice in healing is the approach or combination of approaches that works for you.