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Alternative medical therapies stir up a debate


Consumers are voting with their wallets

February 14, 1997
Web posted at: 9:45 p.m. EST

KENT, Washington (CNN) -- Patients at a community health center in this town south of Seattle have the option of seeing an M.D. or an N.D.

An N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor, someone whose treatments include acupuncture, diet, herbs and a variety of other modalities not ordinarily used by medical doctors.

"I think one of the surprises is that conventional medicine and natural medicine can work together side-by-side ultimately to benefit the patient," says Dr. Marty Ross of the Kent Community Health Center.


The medical doctors, naturopathic doctors, acupuncturists and others have developed systems and guidelines that enable them to work together in the patient's best interests.

But panelists at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are skeptical, to say the least.

"I think that the real question is when do we call it medicine vs. therapy vs. religion, and when does the taxpayer start paying for these various ways of making people feel better," says Ursula Goodenough of Washington University.

To Dr. Ross, the medical director of the Kent Community Health Center, the bottom line is not what the treatments are called, or whether certain scientists approve of them, but whether they work or not.

Consumers are voting with their wallets

"Ultimately, we have to look at how our patients respond to that therapy," he says, "and I think clearly that's what's taking place in this clinic."


Indeed, many people say alternative treatments make them feel better. Even scientists who think the treatments are bogus cannot dismiss the responses, and they admit they've learned from it.

"We've learned something about the psychology of treatment, about how the placebo effect works, how simple reassurance works, how relieving stress and anxiety can actually have positive spinoffs," says Barry Beyerstein of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"That is scientifically useful information that can now be incorporated into scientific biomedicine so we don't need all the hocus-pocus to go with it."

What some view as hocus-pocus, however, is valid and helpful to others. And while panelists call for proof that these new therapies work, consumers are casting their votes with their wallets.

Experts estimate that Americans spend $15 billion a year on alternative medicine, and that's the kind of testimonial that is hard to ignore.

Correspondent Andrew Holtz contributed to this report.  

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