As do many HIV-positive people, Elena Monica does all she can to maintain her health and avoid the disease's symptoms.
She sees a conventional medical doctor who checks her blood and advises her. But she also undergoes oxygen therapy, an unproven remedy that involves intramuscular injections of pure liquid oxygen. And she practices chiqong , a form of Chinese meditation.
"Most people (with HIV) have to take some sort of action to get themselves healthier," says Monica, 27, a Los Angeles actress. "And unless you're unconscious, it's hard to avoid alternative medicine in this town."
Since learning a year ago that she had contracted HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), Monica says she has felt fine and suffered no symptoms. (It's not uncommon for people to remain symptom-free for years after being diagnosed.)
The problem with her therapy--and with most unconventional medical practices--is that no one can say for certain whether they really work.
That may change.
In an action some call historic, the National Institutes of Health this year opened a small office to study the many alternative practices and therapies flourishing in the United States.
The office for the study of unconventional medical practices--the name is tentative--will put such therapies as acupuncture, herb medicine, massage therapy, meditation and hands-on healing to the kind of scientific scrutiny applied in conventional medicine.
The project is loaded with promise--and with problems.
Among the latter: how to ease the tensions between alternative therapists and conventional medical doctors and promote cooperation and how to test therapies that, practitioners say, are often based on a complicated blend of mind, body and spirituality.
"One of the questions I've raised is: What should we call this office? Unconventional? Alternative? Complementary?" says Dr. Jay Moskowitz, associate director for scientific policy at NIH. "Since we are doing this to bring two communities together, unconventional and conventional medicine, I want them both to be comfortable with the name."
The NIH, which funds the majority of the nation's medical research, responded to a congressional mandate to research alternative medicine. Alternative health advocates lobbied Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to increase federal funding for studies on alternative medicine. Congress eventually mandated NIH to open the office with a budget this year of $2 million (the agency's overall budget is $8.9 billion).
Public hearings to plan the office were held in June. And, earlier this month, an ad hoc committee began developing its first projects.
"There was some anxiety about whether our effort is for real," Moskowitz says. "We are serious about this. More and more people are asking the question: In addition to conventional medicine, is there an adjunct? Can we supplement this practice with something else? That is what we will look at."
Although some alternative practitioners are suspicious, most welcome the government's involvement.
"I think that this is a new era," says Frank Wiewel, founder of an alternative health association called People Against Cancer.
"I believe this is about the changing face of American medicine. For example, we cannot afford to lose 600,000 of our citizens to cancer every year. We must look at new directions. And this is what this office is about. This office is going to look very seriously in a scientific way at whether or not these alternatives offer promise."
Says Eve Campanelli, a homeopathic practitioner in Beverly Hills: "It's mind-boggling. It's very exciting. It's about time."
Dr. Deepak Chopra, the leading U.S. proponent of an ancient Hindu system of medicine called Ayurveda and a former practitioner of conventional medicine, also believes it's time to explore the legitimacy of alternative medicine:
"It's an opening up within the mainstream medical Establishment of ideas that have been considered alternative. The younger generation of American doctors feel it's time to look at alternatives to traditional Western medicine."
There is also growing recognition that many forms of alternative medicine address two weaknesses in conventional medicine: It is often less expensive because it shuns invasive therapies and high-technology equipment, and it emphasizes prevention.
"Holistic health care costs less," says Steve Gorman, president of the Calabasas-based Alliance for Alternatives in Healthcare. "If you can prevent back surgery with 20 treatments of acupuncture, that's a lot less expensive."
And in the quest to learn more about prevention, more conventional doctors have come across alternative therapies, he says: "I think a lot of (mainstream physicians) are having more favorable experiences with alternative health care. A lot of people who have practiced conventional medicine all their lives have stumbled upon some aspect of alternative medicine that they find helpful."