Finding Alternatives to Alternative Medicine

Thursday, September 25th, 2008
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

My 73-year-old dad has been struggling with a gastrointestinal disorder for the last few months. His gastroenterologist prescribed antibiotics and emphatically told him that diet would make no difference in his symptoms. During a particularly uncomfortable weekend, my dad’s Web surfing turned up a practitioner of integrative medicine who offered consultations by telephone. Before the call ended, this “doctor” had recommended some herbal remedies.

(Yes, older adults ARE using the Internet to research health-related issues…and shop. My mother told me this weekend that she had Googled Wasilla Town Hall for details on the polar bear pin worn by Sarah Palin.)

By the time I talked to my dad last Monday, he was already getting some relief from the probiotics and slippery elm he had purchased from the health food store. I suggested we replace his virtual physician with a live one, and began my search for a local practitioner of integrative medicine. It wasn’t easy. A survey by Health Forum, a subsidiary of the American Hospital Association, shows that more than one-third of responding hospitals are supplementing their clinical practices with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), citing increased patient demand. While individual physicians may also be embracing CAM, it is less obvious from their Web presence that they are doing this.

I did finally locate a female trauma surgeon whose long-time interest in CAM led her to open an integrative medicine practice locally. At my request, her office sent my dad some paperwork to complete in advance of his appointment. That stopped the process dead in its tracks. He found many of the questions in the 20-page survey too invasive to answer. As anxious as he was for relief, he could not understand what his sleep patterns, sexual habits and mood had to do with his stomach problems. In the end, this septuagenarian was put off by the holistic approach to his medical troubles and the non-reimbursable nature of many of this doctor’s services.

After additional research, we decided he should continue the antibiotics and probiotics but also experiment with some dietary changes. His decision to eliminate red meat, caffeine, alcohol and other “triggers” is at the same time heart-healthy (a co-morbidity) and friendly to my mom’s type 1 diabetes. Last Sunday I served them both a lunch with all of the recommended “safe” foods and none of the dietary “triggers.”

Armed with a “safe” foods list, he is doing much better, but his experience provided a glimpse into the world of integrative medicine and some of the resistance these practitioners must encounter, especially from older patients. Now that my dad has visited a health food store, however, I suspect that yoga, meditation and even acupuncture may be in his future.

No word yet on the polar bear pin, though.

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