Finding Your Way: One Physician-Patient's Look at Conventional and Complementary Medicine

09/28/2012 06:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2012

In health care, the world breaks down into two types: those who "believe" in alternative medicine and those who think it is quackery. This is unfortunate. New ideas are always alternative until they become well accepted. This is how science progresses. As a patient, however, it is very confusing. It is not much easier as a doctor. Trained as a physician in the 70s, I remember the eye rolls and derision when Adele Davis' book came out, You Are What You Eat. I am not an apologist for all her ideas, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that, at that time, it was considered a ludicrous idea that food would impact disease. Exercise and stress management were also not taught to young physicians as something to focus on with our patients, to say the least.

Thankfully, we have come a long way in recognizing the importance of nutrition, stress management and other so-called alternative ideas. But have we? Just this week I had two interesting encounters with young physicians. Knowing my interest, one shared that he was recommending a particular qigong DVD to his cardiac patients. With a self-conscious laugh, he quickly added, "I told them... Honest, I am not a flake." The other -- a therapy patient -- brought in a journal article, and said, "You know the stuff you are teaching me?" I suspected that he was referring to a variety of "alternative" techniques I have recently begun introducing to therapy patients when appropriate. Humorously, but also sheepishly, he went on, "I don't know how to say this, but did you know it's actually [pause] real?" He then showed me the citation that stress was as large a risk factor in cardiac disease as high blood pressure or abdominal obesity.

And the difficulty is not just with so-called conventional medicine. Dealing with a serious autoimmune disease and an early form of multiple myeloma, it has taken me as long to put together a trustworthy team of alternative providers as it did to find the right M.D.'s. With some it seems you must "drink the Kool-aid" and become a "believer," or face some degree of condescension not conducive to getting well. For instance, I had to fire one acupuncturist when he told me, with exasperation, that I wasn't serious about getting better when I answered a question about how I was feeling... wrong.

To me, science is science. And just because something looks ethereal before it is understood doesn't mean that it is magical or '"flaky." And just because something may be effective doesn't mean that all the explanations held dear by some are true. The question is what to do before all the data is in. And it is a tough question. I have developed a few guidelines that have helped me on this journey:

  1. Don't be seduced into an ideological position. Shun the paradigm that you are a "believer" or a "flake."
  2. Don't get scared off of alternative therapies because it is too hard to figure out what works. Pay close attention to your body and you will get feedback. Really listen. Trust yourself. Start simple and be patient with yourself.
  3. If your physician is opposed to adding complementary treatments, try to find out why. Is it a specific medical contraindication, or a vague or general philosophic attitude?
  4. Think of health as a process rather than a destination. Sometimes achieving homeostasis is good enough. Many people live long and good lives with many diseases, including cancer. One patient recently expressed this by saying that he no longer thought of health as a binary system.
  5. Find someone you trust to give you guidance. You may have to confront some internal resistance, but you should never be asked to abandon your sense of self.

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