Technological genius and biomedical marvels have earned 20th-century American medicine a stunning reputation for curing diseases and fixing broken bodies. But a surprisingly large and growing number of people in this country use "alternative" or "unconventional" healing therapies for their health problems.
In January, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a shocking survey that showed that about 10 percent of all American adults seek the help of unconventional healing practitioners. About one-third of American adults use some form of unconventional health care. These people are not uneducated or superstitious. Typically, they've had at least some college education and earn more than $35,000 a year. They pursue alternative health-care methods to relieve a variety of ailments, most frequently back problems, anxiety, headaches, chronic pain and cancer.
They go to acupuncturists, chiropractors, herbalists, homeopathists, hypnotists and spiritual healers. They join professionally led weight-loss programs and self-help groups. They use massage, therapeutic imagery, biofeedback, meditation, relaxation techniques, megavitamin therapy, energy healing, macrobiotics and even folk remedies.
The numbers jump off the page:
* Some 425 million annual patient visits to unconventional health therapists. That's more than the 388 million annual visits Americans make to all family doctors, internists and other primary-care physicians.
* Some $13.7 billion a year spent on alternative health care. Three-quarters of these expenses are paid out of patients' own pockets because it's less likely to be reimbursed by health insurance.
* Ninety percent of these people seek unconventional treatment without a physician's recommendation. Seventy percent of them don't even tell their doctors about it.
Something is going on here.
Last June, the National Institutes of Health opened a new Office of Alternative Medicine. This summer it will begin awarding research grants to unconventional healing practitioners for the clinical study of their therapeutic effectiveness.
Last year, the Fetzer Institute committed $4.4 million to Stanford, Princeton, San Francisco Medical School and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for research on the mind's influence on the body.
Harvard Medical School even has a new course called " 'Non-conventional,' 'Unorthodox' Medical Techniques -- Implications for Clinical Practice and Research." It's taught by 00 Dr. David M. Eisenberg, who, in 1979, was the first medical exchange student sent to China.
You may have seen Dr. Eisenberg last week on PBS's remarkable five-part television series "Healing and the Mind." In the first program he took Bill Moyers on a tour of Chinese medicine. We saw acupuncture, herbal treatment and millions of people performing daily morning meditative exercises known as "t'ai chi ch'uan" and "chi gong."
Dr. Eisenberg explained the central premise underlying all these ancient Chinese healing arts. To the Chinese, healing cannot be disconnected from the rest of life. The body and the mind are not separate and distinct. The mind, the spirit, the emotions are all intimately linked with physiological phenomena in one body-mind-spirit reality.
In the other four programs, Bill Moyers examined how similar concepts underlie alternative health-care therapies in the United States. He reviewed the growing body of scientific evidence which links your mind to your physical health. He showed the healing powers of meditation for chronic pain sufferers and group therapy for cancer patients.
If you missed "Healing and the Mind" last week, watch your TV listings. Maryland Public Television plans to rerun the five programs soon, probably this month. They go a long way to explain why so many Americans look outside the conventional health-care system for relief from pain and disease.
Alternative therapies share a common approach to illness and wellness. They treat a patient as a suffering human being, rather than a collection of broken body parts on a technological assembly line. They hold your hand. Smile. Laugh and cry with you. They invite you to join them as a partner in your own recovery. They lift the human spirit and enlist it in the healing process. Like the Chinese, they assume that mental, emotional and spiritual energies affect our vulnerability to disease and our ability to recover from it.
Conventional Western medicine is beginning to rediscover these simple truths. Academic medical centers may use names like "psychoneuroimmunology." But the basic lessons are more profound than they are technological.
Loneliness and helplessness make it harder for sick people to get well. Laughter, compassion and touch are powerful healing agents. The mind plays a major and indispensable role in recovery. Hope, joy and purpose can transform the experience of illness. Healing is possible even when a cure isn't.
In the 20th century, American medicine became scientific. We have all benefited enormously from that development. But somewhere in the process the science of medicine drifted away from the art of healing. Unconventional healers, on the other hand, make patients feel better but have not proved their clinical effectiveness in ways that can be explained or verified with scientific reliability.
It's obvious that the two different approaches have a lot to learn from each other. And it's reassuring to see some small slow steps in that direction.
Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.