What to Consider When Looking at Alternative Medicine
A brief guide to naturopathic, osteopathic and integrated care
A couple of months ago, my father came to me with some very bad news, and a big request: The colon cancer that he’d been battling for over two years had returned, spread, and was in stage four. He had decided not to submit himself to another round of chemotherapy and radiation and asked if I would help him research natural alternatives in his fight against cancer.
As a health and wellness writer and a fitness professional, I’m no stranger to the world of medical research, but this felt way out of my league. I didn’t know where to begin, so I started with a book he told me he was reading. After reading 20 or 30 pages, and researching half a dozen of the “proven” therapies described there, I wondered whether he’d made the right decision and I worried that I was not going to be of any help.
The “miracle cures” endorsed by the book, and others that proliferated on cancer blogs and forums, included everything from weird food combinations to ingesting metallic compounds to drinking a tea made with rhinoceros horn. Of the dozen or so therapies I looked into, only one had been studied clinically with a tenuously favorable outcome. The rest were void of any scientific backing.
Complementary and Integrative Therapies
Still, as a health professional, I believe strongly that sound nutrition, stress reduction and regular physical activity can be both preventive and curative for many physical ailments, so I wasn’t willing to abandon my search for effective therapies for my dad. I simply stopped looking at “silver bullet” alternative remedies and shifted my focus toward the more rigorously vetted fields of complementary and integrative medicine.
I knew, through research I’d done for my first book, that some of these therapies had been used or endorsed by prominent doctors. In 2008, for example, Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues famously published research showing that diet, exercise, group therapy and meditation had been successfully used to halt and reverse the PSA levels and growth of cancerous tumors in a trial involving prostate cancer patients who were not undergoing conventional treatment.
Along those same lines, Dr. Gary Deng and Dr. Barrie Cassileth of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center published an article for the journal, Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, extolling the medical virtues of such diverse therapies as acupuncture, meditation, yoga and Swedish massage.
I figured that if these doctors believe that complementary therapies are effective against conventional diseases, there must be some substance behind them. So I began looking for credible integrative medicine practitioners in my dad’s area who might be able to help him put together his own best comprehensive care program. My search quickly became focused on two fields of integrative medicine: naturopathic and osteopathic physicians.
Other Types of Doctors
Both Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) attend accredited four-year medical schools. Upon graduation, they undergo post-graduate training similar to that of medical doctors, including internships, residencies and fellowships. Both professions approach care from a holistic, whole person concept, but NDs focus heavily on nutrition and herbal supplements, while DOs get 200 hours of extra training on the musculoskeletal system. DOs can prescribe medication and perform surgery. (The terms Naturopathic Physician and Osteopathic Physician are synonymous and interchangeable with Naturopathic Doctors and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, respectively.)
I spoke with Dr. Sara Jean Barrett, a naturopathic physician and vice president of public relations for the Minnesota Association of Naturopathic Physicians, to get a better sense of how NDs fit into the bigger health and wellness picture. She told me that the education and training to become an ND is similar to that of a typical family physician and that naturopathic doctors specialize in specific areas of medicine the way that medical doctors do. This makes it easier for patients to connect with a specific provider depending on their needs.
“The real difference [between NDs and medical doctors],” Barrett said, “is that an ND looks for the underlying cause of a patient’s disease rather than only treating the symptoms.”
Because naturopathic doctors develop comprehensive care programs specific to each individual, they tend to spend a lot of time with each patient. “The average ND will spend an hour and a half with a patient,” Barrett said. That’s in stark contrast to the 15 minutes most physicians spend with their patients.
I also spoke with Dr. Jennifer Johnson, an osteopathic physician practicing family medicine at the Mayo Clinic’s Northridge Clinic in Mankato, Minn. She told me that the amount of time a DO spends with a patient is governed by the reason for the patient’s visit and could range from a few minutes for something like a sore throat to an hour for a more serious condition. Johnson stressed that osteopathic physicians “look for the underlying cause of a condition,” and that “by considering the musculoskeletal system’s role, the healing process can often be sped up.”
As an example, she explained that performing certain manipulative therapies on a patient recovering from appendix surgery could stimulate certain organs to function better and allow the body to recover more quickly.
While many patients choose to work primarily with an ND or DO, they may also include a range of other providers as part of a comprehensive care team. For example, some NDs and DOs establish practices in clinics that also have acupuncturists, massage therapists and nutritionists on staff.
“We often work as part of a team with other health care providers, and can support other therapies such as chemotherapy,” Barrett told me. “It’s important to have someone on your team who understands how nutrition and herbal supplements interact with prescription medication.”
When asked how she felt about individuals researching and sometimes diagnosing or even treating themselves based on what they’ve heard or read online, Barrett stressed that patient empowerment is important to naturopathic physicians, who work to educate their patients about their condition and steps they can take to improve their health. But she also cautioned against relying solely on information passed along by friends or family or found on the Internet.
Don't Be Fooled
As my own research confirmed, there is a lot of information out there that’s unproven at best, and potentially harmful at worst. For those considering alternative medicine, either on its own, or as part of an integrated care program, it’s a good idea to seek the care and counsel of a medically trained, licensed professional, such as an ND or a DO.
Barrett stressed that, while most alternative medicine fields have strict licensing organizations, the titles associated with those fields are not always regulated. For example, the term “naturopath” is not regulated, so there is nothing stopping anyone from using that title, whether the person has received the proper medical training or not.
That’s why it’s important to do your research and find a provider that has undergone the kind of education and training you’d expect from a true medical professional.
Check With Your Insurance
Health insurance coverage for visits to NDs can vary by state and by insurance plan and the visits are not covered under Medicare. Visits to DOs are covered in the same way as Medical Doctors, but it's always best to to check with your insurance company and the medical provider to be sure the particular services you are seeking are covered.
As for my dad, he’s adopted a plant-based diet, quit smoking and started exercising regularly. He is also taking a couple of supplements that were given the green light by his physician. At his last checkup, test results showed that his cancer was still present but doesn’t appear to have advanced. For now, he’s waiting to see if these simple healthy lifestyle changes are enough to keep him healthy, but he is still considering a visit to one of the alternative practitioners in his area.