Mainstreaming Alternative Medicine

People are incorporating naturopathy to acupunture into traditional medical treatment
Niki Stojnic  |   Seattle Health Spring/Summer 2014   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Naturopath Andrew Simon, N.D., examines a baby at Bastyr's Center for Natural Health

When one of Dr. Andrew Simon’s patients came in to his office complaining of flu symptoms, discussing whether medication was needed to mitigate the symptoms was just the beginning. “[He] complained about some upper back pain, so I did a back adjustment for [him]; and then we discussed stress, so I also helped with some stress management exercises.” ¶ That kind of all-encompassing care is all in a day’s work for Simon, a naturopath in his first year of clinical residency at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Wallingford, where he supervises student physicians and sees patients.

One of the reasons he trained as a naturopath, as opposed to a traditional medical doctor, is that he can offer his patients more time to discuss their ailments and treat many of them with both homeopathic and mainstream (or allopathic) remedies. It’s the best of a few worlds. “I didn’t have to refer them out to a chiropractor, I’m trained to do those kinds of adjustments, and when I was evaluating him, I could have ordered a chest X-ray,” he says. “I think from a patient point of view, [going to a naturopath] gives someone a lot more ability to not be shuttled around in the health care system.”

Simon, who has a special interest in sports and physical medicine, represents the changing face of complementary and alternative medicine, a far cry from the “granola” stereotype that sometimes persists even as increasing numbers of people—nearly 40 percent of Americans, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)—incorporate some form of alternative medicine treatment, whether it’s acupuncture, chiropractic, naturopathy, massage, or simply taking vitamin supplements. Medical centers are listening and making natural alternatives a part of their offerings. According to the American Hospital Association, more than 42 percent of hospitals in 2011 indicated that they offer one or more types of complementary (which encompasses both Western and alternative medicine) and alternative medicine therapy, up from 37 percent in 2007; before that, between 1998 and 2004, the number had doubled.

For people interested in exploring alternative medicine, the Pacific Northwest is the place to be. Bastyr University in Kenmore, and its Wallingford teaching clinic, is one of the leading training grounds for alternative medicine practitioners. The Seattle area is a hotbed of alternative treatments, from acupuncture to massage to naturopathy. In fact, in the 1990s Washington was a pioneer in requiring insurance companies to cover various forms of licensed natural health care.

In Washington state (as in 16 others), naturopaths have strict licensing requirements: They are required to graduate from a four-year, residential naturopathic medical school and pass a board exam to become licensed. They’re able to prescribe most conventional medicines, barring opiates, such as oxycontin and vicodin, and barbituates, and are considered primary care doctors, opening the doors for insurance companies to include them in their coverage systems. This year, one of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act allows naturopathic physicians to participate in Apple Health, Washington’s Medicaid program.

Most people who use alternative medicine use it in tandem with conventional medicine, a practice sometimes referred to as complementary medicine. The practice has made the specialty of integrative medicine, in which medical doctors get training in alternative medicine practices, gain popularity (see sidebar, page 39). “We don’t get patients in and immediately go, ‘We’re gonna treat you with nettles and chamomile,’ says naturopath and medical doctor Marina Abrams, laughing. Abrams is trained and licensed as an anesthesiologist and practiced in emergency rooms in her native Russia, and later earned her naturopathy degree at Bastyr.  She is the medical director of Water’s Edge Natural Medicine on north Queen Anne.

Abrams says that many of the clients who come to her clinic have already been to traditional medical centers without finding a completely satisfactory treatment. “Most of our patients come in on 10 different prescription drugs, with a chronic issue; they’ve been going doctor to doctor. We try to be very careful—we would never say, ‘Go ahead and stop taking drugs’—but you can treat most conditions and improve the situation just by changing their diet, lifestyle, and encouraging weight loss.”