Alternative Medicine's
Explosive Growth
By Susan Milstrey Wells
(WebMD) - Alternative medicine is big business. Consider these facts, from a survey published in the November 11, 1998, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzing data from 1997:
Four out of 10 of us used some type of alternative medicine. Total visits to alternative-medicine practitioners increased by almost 50 percent from 1990 and exceeded visits to all primary-care physicians. We spent an estimated $21.2 billion on alternative health care, more than half of which was paid out-of-pocket. At the same time, alternative medicine has come under closer scrutiny. In a scathing editorial in its September 17, 1998, edition, The New England Journal of Medicine lambasted alternative remedies as being irrational, insufficiently tested and sometimes dangerous. "There cannot be two kinds of medicine," Journal editors Marcia Angell, M.D., and Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D., wrote.
With all the complex and contradictory information available, how can we successfully negotiate the minefield of information about alternative therapies? Eschewing nontraditional therapies altogether is shortsighted and limiting, but accepting it all -- hook, line and sinker -- would be reckless and potentially dangerous. Instead, we need to become savvy health-care consumers. Here, some guidelines to keep in mind as you begin your search.
1. First, and perhaps most importantly, trust your instincts and be cautious. To be safe, look for alternative remedies that are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and not likely to cause harmful side effects.
2. Second, beware of miracle cures. Keep in mind the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." In particular, Consumer Reports, in a February 1997 article, advises us to be skeptical about anyone who promises to treat an impossibly long list of diseases, who talks about "a new paradigm" for treating disease or who complains too frequently that conventional medicine ignores their insights.
3. Third, treat serious symptoms seriously. For example, if you have Crohn's disease, you should not hesitate to take the medicine your doctor has prescribed, knowing that left unchecked, the illness might lead to the loss of part or all of your colon. Once the illness is safely under control, however, you may try out alternative methods for reducing stress, which can lead to a flare-up.
4. Finally, find a reliable guide. You wouldn't take medicine without a prescription, and you shouldn't plunge into alternative care without some expert advice. Ideally, you should choose a licensed medical professional, such as a physician or nurse practitioner, who practices some alternative techniques or who can refer you to providers who do.
The best of both worlds
Conventional medicine is not the end-all and be-all of health care today, but alternative medicine may not hold the magic cure, either. Each of us is unique, and the treatment that works best for your health problems will be unique as well. It's best to approach health-care decisions with an open mind, some good information, and the knowledge that you have the right and the responsibility to get well.
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