Alternative Goes Mainstream

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A growing number of hospitals are embracing alternative treatments to boost patient satisfaction and improve care quality. But can integrative medicine programs make money?

There once were two kinds of patients: those who went to a chiropractor and those who had back surgery. Or those who sought acupuncture and those who had a knee replacement. Eastern healing and Western medicine were worlds apart.

Not so today. For a growing number of patients, holistic treatment is no longer just an alternative--it's a preference. The Detroit Free Press reported earlier this year that alternative medicine is estimated to be a $47 billion business. In fact, experts estimate that nearly 60 percent of Americans are doing some sort of alternative care, says Brent Bauer, MD, director of Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program in Rochester, MN.

Mayo formed its integrative medicine program in 2001 at its two Rochester-based hospitals. The program has since become a testing ground for integrative services nationwide. Mayo has seen shortened lengths of stay, reduced use of narcotics and increased patient satisfaction, Bauer says. Additionally, alternative services like massage, acupuncture, and healing touch (or Reiki) reduce pain and help patients sleep better while recovering from conventional medical procedures.

Although medical schools are teaching alternative medicine and many health systems are adding it to their service offerings through integrative medicine programs, some organizations remain skeptical because of uncertain financial rewards that can take years to manifest. But Bauer contends that the term "alternative" has become a misnomer.

"This is no longer alternative medicine; this has become integrative and part of medicine, so to pretend it doesn't exist, to not have your foot in the door at all, is probably not a good long-term strategy."

Getting payers on board

Greenwich (CT) Hospital added integrative medicine to its inpatient offerings eight years ago, and a new outpatient clinic opened at the 174-staffed-bed hospital earlier this year. President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Corvino says this program allows the hospital to combine the best of Eastern and Western medicine.

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