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Healthcare Reform and Integrative Medicine

We hear a lot about healthcare reform in the news today. The different components of this reform reach into every part of the healthcare system, from access to care to insurance to bedside care – from cradle to grave. But this reform involves much more than counting medical dollars and medical beds. It requires a change in how we actually think about healthcare. What images come to our minds when we hear the word healthcare? Is it always dollars and hospital beds? We have made great strides in early risk assessment, and are making some progress in health education, stress management and dietary guidelines, but what about nutritional supplements, and herbs? Are we ready to integrate these concepts into mainstream medicine? It looks like we are.

To understand how new concepts become part of mainstream medicine it is good to know how medicine is classified. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), complementary medicine is any medicine that is used together with standard medical care. A classic example is using acupuncture to help with side effects of cancer treatment. New examples include doctors recommending calcium supplements to prevent of treat osteoporosis. Keep in mind that acupuncture and calcium were once considered “alternative” and were delegated to the fringes of healthcare where they had no part in western medicine.

Alternative medicine is defined by the NIH as medicine used in place of standard medical care. An example is treating heart disease with chelation (pronounced "kee-lay-shen") therapy (which seeks to remove excess metals from the blood) instead of using a standard approach. The combination of both complementary and alternative medicine is called CAM.

The NIH discusses a related concept called "integrative medicine", which is a total approach to care that involves the patient's mind, body, and spirit. It combines standard medical treatments with CAM practices that have shown the most promise. They give the example of taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement in addition to a prescription statin medication to reduce cholesterol. According to an NIH release in December 2008, almost 40% of all adults use some form of CAM. A study published in JAMA the same month revealed that 52% of 57 to 85 year old adults who are taking prescription also take dietary supplements. Integrative medicine is here. The increase in integrative healthcare practices involves so many people that the NIH has launched an education campaign called “Time to Talk” to encourage patients—particularly those age 50 or older—and their health care providers to openly discuss the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Healthcare providers can more effectively manage their patients’ health when patients tell them about their CAM use. When providers ask their patients about CAM use, they can ensure that they are fully informed and can help patients make wise health care decisions.

The greatest resource for both patients and physicians who want to learn how to safely use both supplements and prescription drugs is the clinical pharmacist. Safe integration of both mainstream medications and nutritional supplements is a necessary component of integrative medicine that allows patients, physicians and pharmacists to obtain a higher quality of life, and a lower risk of disease. Integrative medicine is healthcare reform.

Joseph J. Collins, RN, ND is a Registered Nurse with a Naturopathic Doctorate. He serves as Naturopathic Consultant to Advance Health, a specialty pharmacy that focuses on health and wellness education. Advance Health is a division of CarePro Health Services.