Be Well: East Meets West at the Hospital
With lives at stake, doctors have long been conservative about changing Western medicine—but patients are persuading them to integrate Eastern medicine into their care plans.
It has been a decades-long journey of discovery for many clinicians.
“Medicine overall, rightfully so, is a very conservative practice,” says Natalia Dorf-Biderman, MD. “It’s not like we are creating a new design for a tool or computer. We are treating people, and lives are at stake. So that makes clinicians and medicine overall a very conservative practice.”
But Dorf-Biderman, a physician at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, counts herself among the Western medical practitioners who now see how Eastern medicine integrates with their care.
“[Patients] are exploring beyond the boundaries of Western medicine, and there is no way to completely disregard how non-traditional medical ways of providing care are impacting our patients,” she says. “They wanted it integrated with our traditional health care delivery system. So we have to be paying attention because it seems to be working.”
She also counts herself among those patients. Suffering neck pain about a year ago, she saw her doctor, had physical therapy, and took medication for pain relief. An MRI later revealed an impingement of two cervical nerves as the source of her pain.
That’s when her husband, a pain and palliative care specialist at Methodist, suggested that she try acupuncture.
“He is a big believer in nontraditional medicine,” she says. “I said, ‘Well, that’s going to be super expensive,’ and he said, ‘You should try to see if insurance will pay for it.’”
It did, and after five or six acupuncture treatments, her neck pain was under control. She says health insurance companies have increasingly recognized that Eastern medicine practices have proved helpful to healing.
“Patients are voting with their own dollars, and they’re voting with their feet. They’re getting recommendations from their friends and families, and they’re finding their ways into the offices of complementary and integrative health care providers.” —Dr. Michele Renee, Northwestern Health Sciences University
Dorf-Biderman points to the wide acceptance of acupuncture that is used in in-patient facilities and emergency rooms across the country to relieve pain, anxiety, and other ailments.
“I see that these practices are going to be more and more integrated in the care delivery that we provide today,” she says. “I know that HealthPartners has had committees and groups of leaders and clinicians looking at how we integrate those practices within our clinics and our hospitals.”
For patients, hospitals, clinics, and clinicians, it will continue to be a journey of discovery, she says. “Everybody has their own journey, and they need to take it.”
The View from the East
When health problems rain down on patients, doctors often could use more ways to calm the storm, says Michele Renee, DC, MAc, an acupuncturist and chiropractor.
“When we talk about integrative care, we’re really talking about the big umbrella,” says Renee, director of integrative care and an associate professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “I mean, the very fullest menu you can imagine is where I think we should be orienting ourselves.”
During her more than 20 years in practice, Renee has seen a steady increase in Western clinicians who refer patients for chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture treatments.
“Patients are voting with their own dollars, and they’re voting with their feet,” she says. “They’re getting recommendations from their friends and families, and they’re finding their ways into the offices of complementary and integrative health care providers.” Many of those patients are looking for care that is grounded not in efficiency but in effectiveness and connectedness.
“I think the thing that complementary and integrative health care does better than most of mainstream medicine is lifestyle medicine,” Renee says.
That means talking about nutrition, relieving pain, or addressing the day-to-day things we do that keep us well or make us sick.
With methods like chiropractic, touch therapies, and acupuncture, integrative care can relieve pain quickly without pharmaceuticals.
“There’s a technique called battlefield acupuncture that literally is used on the battlefield … because it blocks pain so well,” Renee says, “but it also walks us into having a longer-term relationship in helping a patient manage pain.”
Integrative medicine also can address mental and behavioral health, as well as help treat addiction issues. “This is all about expanding our toolkit in as many environments as possible.”