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Hospitals Like the Alternative : Acupuncture. Massage. They're finding a place next to traditional medicine.

September 08, 1997|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

In what is surely one of the most convincing signs yet that alternative health is moving into the mainstream, two Los Angeles-area hospitals have announced that they will begin offering services such as acupuncture and herbal medicine.

In what may be the first program of its kind, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center this month is opening a comprehensive Complementary Medicine program that will make such services as acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage therapy, homeopathy and chiropractic available to patients.

And last month, Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital launched a medical intern residency program allowing acupuncture students at Emperor's College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica to treat patients under the supervision of a licensed acupuncturist from the college.

Officials at the hospitals say the time is right to make the bold foray into nontraditional medical practices because patients are interested in them.

"This is a unique opportunity," says Dr. Steven L. Rosenblatt, director of the new program at Cedars-Sinai. "It's an attempt to push the frontiers of medicine forward. The idea is to forge a bond between Eastern and Western medicine. That is the direction of medicine."

And, says Nancy Carlson, chief operating officer at Daniel Freeman: "The consumers are more than ready and willing for this. Consumers are driving this. We [in the health care industry] are a little bit behind the curve. We weren't listening."

But both Rosenblatt and Carlson are quick to stress that the new services are not designed to replace traditional treatments.

"We're calling our program 'Complementary Medicine' because it acts in concert with everything else we do," says Rosenblatt, who practiced acupuncture for about 20 years before entering medical school in the late 1980s and becoming a family practitioner. "I don't see [traditional and alternative modalities] as contradictive. To me, they both look at different aspects of the same problem."

The programs are illustrative of a national trend, says Anita Green, spokeswoman for the Office of Alternative Health, itself a relatively new addition to the National Institutes of Health. (It was established in 1992.)

"I have seen the emergence of this type of effort for about two years," she says.

A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one-third of Americans have used some form of alternative medicine--typically in outpatient settings and without the involvement of a traditional medical doctor.

Other programs that have broken ground in the melding of traditional and nontraditional medicine include a state-funded clinic for alternative health practices in Kings County, Wash., and a program originating at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., that allows interns in both Oriental medicine and traditional medicine to learn about each other's fields as part of their residencies.

Moreover, various hospitals around the country are offering selected alternative therapies within specific units, such as in cardiovascular and cancer clinics. And several hospitals and health maintenance organizations around the state have begun offering acupuncture to inpatients, says an official with the California Acupuncture Committee.

But introducing nontraditional medicine into a traditional hospital setting requires a cautious approach, Carlson says, because some patients and physicians remain skeptical. She believes that the training of students of Eastern medicine within the structure of a traditional hospital is a logical first step.

"Emperor's College shared the same kind of vision I had, which was to merge the disciplines, and the best way to do that is through students. That is where you start breaking down barriers and changing thinking," she says.

Daniel Freeman patients will have the option of seeking acupuncture with the consent of their doctor. They may opt to be treated by an intern under supervision or by a licensed acupuncturist on staff, Carlson says.

"We are primarily looking at it for post-operative pain, headaches, stress and nausea from chemotherapy. But it's not limited to those. The only limitations are those set by the patient, the patient's doctor and what the clinical instructor thinks is appropriate."

At Cedars, the complementary medical services will be offered as part of a larger program that encompasses education and research, Rosenblatt says.

"The idea is that this is research-based. We'll be doing outcome assessments" to see how effective the treatments are, he says.

Officials with both hospitals say they are optimistic that insurance companies will be receptive to coverage of alternative services. Acupuncture is the treatment most likely covered by health insurance plans now.

"I feel that offering this in a medical center is the best way to work with insurers to get reimbursement," Rosenblatt says. "Insurers are interested in this, too--especially in prevention and health maintenance."

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