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Best of Both Worlds

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bridging the medical divide</P> For decades, a medical war has rage.

For decades, a medical war has raged. So-called "orthodox" and "alternative" therapies have fought for power, tallying up victories in the number of patients each side has converted. But no longer. We are seeing integration, the laying down of arms. Patients and practitioners are demanding convergence. The ultimate outcome: more lives saved and better quality of life than ever.

Elizabeth Strand, an avid horse trainer, endured 15 years of extreme fatigue and prolonged bed rest with fibromyalgia. This chronic illness left the South Dakota resident depleted and unable to work. At one point, she was taking nine different drugs, but never seemed to improve.

Then someone suggested vitamin supplements. Her husband Ray, a family physician skeptical of alternative methods, decided: "Why not? Nothing else has worked."

Within three days of taking high-quality nutritional supplements, Elizabeth felt better. Within three weeks, she was off all medication. Within three months, she displayed more energy than she'd had in a decade.

His wife's success inspired Ray to do his own medical research. The result? This family doctor passionately advocates nutritional supplements and makes them the cornerstone of his medical practice. Combined with modest exercise and a high-fibre, low-fat diet of whole foods, he recommends them as a pathway to tremendous health.

"The results are amazing," says Dr. Strand, author of What Your Doctor Doesn't Know About Nutritional Medicine May Be Killing You (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2002). "I'm using drugs as a last, not first, resort for my patients."

What's the Difference?

Some call allopathic care the "quick fix" approach because it stresses the use of medication and speedy intervention to remove a symptom, illness or disease. Allopathic doctors prescribe chemicals or suggest surgery to solve problems.

By contrast, naturopathic doctors search for underlying causes and treat people as whole beings, factoring in emotional and environmental influences, diet and nutrition. Naturopathy takes a preventive approach using natural, non-toxic techniques that range from traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture to herbal remedies. Naturopaths choose the least invasive therapy available to maximize the body's own healing powers.

"The real difference between the two healing camps is that complementary practitioners encourage self-care and self-responsibility," says Zoltan Rona, MD, a Toronto doctor who practises complementary medicine.

Dr. Rona fully recognizes the limitations of conventional health care. "Mainstream medicine leaves a lot to be desired in the treatment or prevention of chronic illnesses like arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease," he says. "At best, conventional medicine suppresses the symptoms of degenerative disease. At worst, it creates new disease or kills its patients through the side-effects of drugs and surgery." He found the benefits of alternative medicine in his own life: vitamin and mineral supplements improved his performance as a tournament tennis player.

More People Seek Alternative Treatment

Increasingly, more patients seek alternative medicine to augment or replace treatment by their family doctors. Seventy-four per cent of people in the US say they want a more natural approach to health care, according to Alternative Medicine Online.

On Canada's West Coast, Patricia Blair's medical doctor could offer her no conventional treatment. The Vancouver, BC resident suffers from extreme chemical sensitivities and reacts severely to almost all medication. Immobile and weakened by steroids, she sought the help of a homeopathic doctor.

"Homeopathy was the first thing that helped me in years," says Blair. "It made a big difference." Within several weeks of alternative care, she felt stronger and had more energy. After a month, she could walk blocks without stopping to rest. Blair still sees her medical doctor for general treatment and continues with a variety of alternative medicines. "We need a balance," she says. "We can't do away with allopathy."

"We see the rejects of the medical system," admits Dr. Christine Craig, ND, a naturopath in Kelowna, BC. She cites numerous patients who faced a terminal diagnosis or severe surgery and sought her beneficial treatment or cure instead. Their conditions have ranged from brain cancer and infertility to autoimmune diseases.

Medical schools have responded to this shift in demand for patient care. Half of all allopathic medical schools now offer courses in alternative medicine. The American Medical Association has passed a resolution to encourage members to "become better informed regarding alternative (complementary) medicine and to participate in appropriate studies of it," according to Alternative Medicine Online.

In actuality, naturopaths receive more classroom education than allopathic doctors on every part of medicine from basic sciences and nutrition to counselling and diet, says Dr. Craig. As practitioners, they spend more time with their patients, on average, compared to allopathic doctors.

Compare the Options

What's the downside of natural medicine? Many medical insurance plans do not cover alternative methods, so treatment can prove expensive. Products often recommended by natural practitioners can also be pricey. (Then again, so can prescription drugs.)

For those with an impatient, take-a-pill mentality, natural medicine can seem slow and unwieldy. Medicinal herbs, for instance, usually take longer than prescriptions to show results. Alternative medicine also requires time for self-education. "Complementary medicine is for people who want to take control over their health and are willing to follow through on their responsibility once they've taken the reins," says Dr. Rona.

Alternative medicine can attract unlicensed people with inadequate medical training, says naturopath Dr. Garrett Swetlikoff. He thinks naturopathy needs more regulation at the national level. (Only BC, Ontario and, recently, Alberta, require licensing for naturopaths.)

Meanwhile, practitioners from both allopathic and alternative camps agree that the greatest strength of conventional medicine lies in hospital emergencies and acute care-broken bones, lacerations, severed tendons, heart attacks and organ failures. "Acute-crisis intervention demands the state-of-the-art in life-saving drugs and surgery," says Dr. Rona. "There is no alternative medical treatment for most of life's major traumas."

However, natural medicine has greater strengths in prevention and supporting the body's own healing powers, according to Dr. Stephen Malthouse, a medical doctor who practises classical homeopathy plus palliative care and medical "walk-ins" in Victoria, BC. Whereas allopathic intervention can stabilize someone with a sudden heart attack and save a life, preventing the condition from recurring is naturopathic, he says.

On the Move to an Integrative Future

In the end, all medical practitioners ultimately have the patient's best interests at heart, which is perhaps why the historical competition between the two groups is subsiding.

Complementary medicine has evolved into a new term integrative which implies that the two forms of health care are inseparable, says Dr. Malthouse.

To best serve today's patients, practitioners from both sides need to value each others' differences and not feel threatened by another system or method, says Dr. Swetlikoff.

How can you bring these two worlds together in your own life? Educate yourself through reading and talking to others. Take a proactive stance. Demand that company insurance plans include coverage for alternative treatments. In Dr. Swetlikoff's words: "If the public really desires an integrated health-care system, people need to voice their views to their members of parliament." Why not enjoy the best of both worlds?

History of Naturopathic Medicine

The philosophy of applying nature's laws to heal the human body officially began as early as 400 BC with the Hippocratic School of Medicine. By the 18th and 19th centuries, natural healing had gained enormous popularity.

German doctor Benedict Lust introduced naturopathy and the concept of the health food store to the US when he immigrated in 1892. He coined the term "naturopathy" and focused medicine on diet and nutrition; his methods varied from spinal manipulation to hydrotherapy. His first class of practitioners graduated in 1902.

In Canada, naturopathy was well established by 1920. Ontario enacted regulatory laws for naturopathic practice in 1925, BC in 1936. (In the US, natural medicine flourished until the mid-1930s when more sophisticated drugs and advanced surgical and medical technology grew more widespread. US legislation severely restricted the availability of other health-care systems.) Naturopathic-related legislation followed in Manitoba in 1943 and in Saskatchewan in 1952.

By the 1960s, US nutrition writer Adele Davis and vitamin C researcher Linus Pauling proved the effectiveness of herbs and vitamin pills. In the last 20 years, more people have grown dissatisfied with conventional medicine and have turned to natural health methods to combat drug side-effects, chronic illness and the impact of increased environmental toxins. An increasing body of evidence supporting natural therapies contributes to their success and acceptance.

History of Allopathic Medicine

Medical doctors appeared in Mesopotamia pictographs more than 5,000 years ago. Physicians performed surgery and Caesarean births as early as 1,000 BC in India, while Egypt recorded cures for scorpion stings in 320 BC.

Through the Renaissance, western Europeans showed a strong interest in Arabian alchemist remedies. By the 16th century, pharmacists were actively making compounds. Doctors in Europe learned inoculation techniques in 1721, and in 1885, Louis Pasteur invented the syringe. By then, chemistry greatly aided medical developments.

By the 1930s, pharmaceutical companies and synthetic drugs gained enormous influence in the US. Since then, drug manufacturers continue to heavily influence the direction of medical research and the practice of allopathic medicine.

Dr. Strand is only one example of a medical doctor who incorporates alternative methods into his allopathic (drug- and surgery-based) practice. Both forms of health care draw on different philosophies and treatments, yet are converging more and more.

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