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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:07 EDT

Alternative Treatments Serve Mind, Body, Spirit

September 15, 2008

By Lisa Gill

When nurses tried to insert an IV into patient Linda Aron’s hand, she was so anxious over the impending operation to fix her acid reflux that they simply had to stop.

Instead of continuing to poke and prod Aron, nurses at Grinnell (Iowa) Regional Medical Center called in a massage therapist to rub her shoulders and arms to help her relax. Within 10 minutes, Aron had an IV in place.

To meet patient demand and enhance the hospital experience, more hospitals like Grinnell offer patients complementary and alternative treatments. The American Hospital Association says today that 37% of hospitals around the USA make complementary and alternative treatments available — including acupuncture, touch therapy, and music and art therapy.

A similar survey by the hospital group in 2005 found that one in four hospitals offered such services.

Patients such as Aron, 56, of Grinnell (population: 9,100), say they are surprised at how some of these therapies make a difference in their hospital experience.

“It was wonderful to have someone take your mind off of what was going on,” Aron says. “Having the human touch and knowing that someone is paying very personal attention to you helps. It keeps everything from being so medical.”

And, to help speed her recovery and relieve pain from the surgery, Aron currently receives weekly acupuncture from the hospital in Grinnell as an outpatient. She pays the $55 fee out of her own pocket.

“This is a movement toward ‘patient-centered’ care,” says Sita Ananth, director of knowledge services for the Samueli Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based non-profit that studies alternative therapies. “Many hospital mission statements are to serve the mind, body and spiritual needs of their patients.”

Success measured in patient satisfaction

Ananth also points to the lucrative market potential of these types of therapies for hospitals, although most hospitals have yet to see a profit. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, up to $19 billion a year is spent on alternative treatments. And the AHA’s survey showed that much of that is paid out of pocket for patients — 71% of them pay cash.

While these types of therapies have a useful place in the hospital, more data are needed to understand how they work, says Andrew Schafer, chief physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Complementary and alternative therapies must be scrutinized in terms of their risk-to-benefit ratio and be subjected to placebo-controlled studies.

“If it turns out that the placebo effect is at work, that is not necessarily a bad thing,” he adds, “but today’s complementary and alternative therapies could be tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs.”

The majority of hospitals say that patient satisfaction is the No. 1 way they determine if an alternative treatment is beneficial, closely followed by clinical data on a treatment. Cleveland Clinic just completed a complementary and alternative therapy pilot program for patients undergoing heart surgery. Half of the patients — more than 1,700 — opted for spiritual care, counseling, art, music, touch therapy or guided imagery, and 93% of patients surveyed said the services were helpful.

Guidance from doctor groups for patients with chronic pain has helped bolster doctors’ acceptance of complementary treatments, says Richard Nahin, senior adviser for scientific coordination and outreach at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. He cites new guidelines for treating lower back pain issued jointly last year by the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society, which suggest many alternative therapies as potential treatments. “As doctors become more aware, hospitals will also follow,” Nahin says.

Not all doctors are on board

Yet the picture is not so rosy at certain centers. According to the AHA, 44% of hospitals that offer such therapies say that their programs have a mediocre or poor relationship with staff physicians.

Betty Carlson, 79, of Fenton, Mich., doesn’t need to be sold on the benefits. She received regular sessions with a Reiki therapist, a form of spiritual healing, and a spiritual adviser during her month-long stay at Cleveland Clinic after open heart surgery. As a retired nursing home administrator, Carlson says she was skeptical when first introduced to Reiki by a friend, but she quickly discovered how it helped relieve pain.

“It was very relaxing, and a gift toward my healing.”

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