Alternative care gaining legitimacy

Yoga, qi gong, acupuncture, herbology classes offered in area hospitals

Hospitals have long been viewed as staid bastions of traditional Western medicine, a world apart from practices like yoga and acupuncture.

Now, that image is changing as hospitals across Delaware and the nation add nontraditional methods known as alternative, complementary or integrative care to their offerings. In doing so, they are lending legitimacy to what some medical professionals have dismissed as fringe practices.

Services in Delaware include yoga classes and qi gong at Christiana Care Health System and acupuncture and chiropractic at St. Francis Hospital’s pain center in Wilmington. At Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, an entire department is devoted to integrative health.

Mitch Selbiger of Rehoboth discovered the integrative health department when he had his hips replaced at Beebe last year. Through a program called “stress-less surgery,” he listened to a relaxation CD and was helped with his healing through aromatherapy and Reiki.

“It was something I was really unaware of,” Selbiger said. “I was just delighted when I saw they offered it. I think it offers a tremendous amount of credibility.”

Delaware is reflecting a national trend. A 2003 survey by the American Hospital Association showed that the percentage of institutions with complementary services more than doubled in four years, rising from 8 percent in 1998 to 17 percent in 2002. The driving force behind the trend, the survey said, is patient demand. Hospitals also reported that they wanted to attract new patients, reflect their missions and offer clinically effective methods.

Cheyenne Luzader, coordinator of integrative health at Beebe, said alternative care methods are not meant to replace or detract from traditional medicine.

But some critics said hospitals should stick to the type of medicine they know best. Complementary practices are just marketing tools to get more patients into hospitals, they said. Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist from Allentown, Pa., who operates the Internet site called Quackwatch.org, said there is no evidence therapies such as Reiki or therapeutic touch work.

“Most things that are called alternative are unproven and make no sense,” Barrett said. “There’s no data showing people who go to them are getting any better. The only thing they can do is make care more expensive.”

Guidance sought

No one disputes that there is far more science behind traditional care. But hospital officials said they seek guidance from the federal government about which alternative methods seem to work best.

In 1998, Congress established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health. The agency supports studies on alternative care, trains researchers and educates professionals and the public on which practices work, which don’t and why.

Many hospitals launched alternative care around the time this agency was established. Beebe started its program six years ago. Christiana Care began offering classes about five years ago. The hospitals started their programs in response to public interest.

A large-scale study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998 reported that more than 40 percent of Americans had tried alternative therapies.

Today, local hospitals have numerous services.

At Beebe, patients can have a therapeutic massage or consult with a naturopathic physician, a doctor who treats the “whole person” and uses a variety of natural medicines and treatments to heal illnesses. Classes on meditation, herbology, tai chi, yoga and Reiki are available. Beebe’s alternative clinics offer therapeutic massage, Reiki and self-hypnosis.

In addition to offering classes, Christiana Care’s Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute includes a massage therapist and a medical doctor who practices acupuncture, said Dr. Margaret Keenan, chief of health psychology at the institute. A committee can provide guidance and information about herbs, supplements and healing methods.

As more hospitals offer such practices, more doctors are finding value in them. Dr. Philip Kim, director of the the St. Francis pain center, said they help some patients. “And they’re not invasive,” he said.

But credibility doesn’t always translate into insurance coverage. Although some insurers cover some services, patients must pay much of the time. Classes in alternative healing methods at Beebe cost about $5 a night. Classes at Christiana Care range from about $65 to $95 for six- or eight-week sessions. An initial visit to an acupuncturist at Christiana Care can cost $100.

Hospital officials said their alternative care programs are not big moneymakers. Nationally, 40 percent of hospitals were losing money on their programs and 32 percent were breaking even, according to the hospital association survey.

“The hospital’s not going to get rich off yoga classes,” Keenan said.

‘A better frame of mind’

But hospitals are generating another valuable commodity: good will among patients and staff.

Kathy Brooks of Felton had a lumpectomy for breast cancer at Beebe three years ago. She used relaxation tapes before the operation and inhaled the aromas of essential oils to relieve pain and nausea afterwards.

“It got me in a better frame of mind. Stress has an adverse effect on the healing process,” said Brooks, who also has taken hospital-sponsored classes on dreams and American Indian healing traditions.

Carolyn Tolles of Greenville said she enjoyed taking yoga at Christiana Care so much that she took the class for a second year.

“I’m getting a lot out of it. I’m much more aware of my body and my posture,” said Tolles, who works as a development officer for the health system.

Dr. Lisa Barkley of Newark, a sports and adolescent medicine physician at Christiana Care, said yoga makes her more flexible and helps relieve aches and pains. She suggests it to some of her patients.

“I think these kinds of things are very important complements to Western medicine,” Barkley said.

But critics said such practices should not be condoned by hospitals. Dr. Robert Baratz, a Massachusetts physician and president of the National Council on Health Fraud, said even if they make people feel better, treatments like massage don’t treat underlying illness.

“The truth in medicine lies with objectively determined facts. The problem with so-called alternative medicine is there is no effective way to measure it,” Baratz said. “Hospitals should be in the business of health care and not marketing.”

Barkley said hospitals must participate in alternative care, partly so they can help direct people to safe and effective methods. “We need to be more aware of these things,” she said, “because a lot of people are using them.”

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