'Alternative' Medicine Becoming Mainstream, UF Study Finds

November 10, 1998

GAINESVILLE---Traditional medical providers may have a reputation for shunning alternative therapies, but health-care teachers are getting massages, learning relaxation techniques and trying other unconventional treatments at about the same rate as the general population, University of Florida researchers report.

In a written survey of physicians, nurses, dentists and other health professionals on UF's faculty, 52 percent of the 764 respondents said they had tried an alternative treatment. An earlier survey found the same percentage of Florida residents had done so.

The results, published as a letter in this week's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (11/11/98), add to the growing evidence that so-called "alternative" medicine is rapidly heading into the mainstream.

"With this survey, we've learned that health science faculty are pretty much like anyone else when it comes to their own health," said Dr. Allen Neims, a professor of pharmacology and former dean of UF's College of Medicine. "This is significant, because they are the role models and teachers of the next generation of health-care professionals."

Neims authored the letter with Mary Ann Burg and Shae Kosch in the College of Medicine's department of community health and family medicine, and Eleanor Stoller of Case Western Reserve University.

This week's JAMA is devoted to research on nontraditional health practices, collectively known as alternative, complementary or integrative medicine. Such therapies are not routinely taught in U.S. medical schools or practiced in the mainstream American medicine, and have not been established as safe and effective by rigorous scientific scrutiny.

Neims and Burg see JAMA's interest as a sign of how important physicians are beginning to view the topic.

"I think physicians now know that their patients are using massage and dietary supplements and that they're going to chiropractors," Burg said. "So physicians have to figure out how to deal with a group of techniques they probably don't have any training in and which to date have little scientific evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness."

About half of U.S. medical schools, including UF, offer elective courses on alternative therapies, Neims said. At UF, some required courses include discussion of the topic. Additionally, a UF family practice clinic offers acupuncture, massage therapy, hypnosis and relaxation techniques.

"There is a tremendous amount of individuality in how integrative treatments are presented to students by the faculty," Neims said. "Some include quite a bit of information and others are quite resistant to it, seeing it as a step backwards scientifically. While there is room for both views within the college, I hope this study gives people a little more sense of permission to teach these things. Teaching about them does not have to be an endorsement."

One hurdle in integrating alternative therapies into mainstream medicine is that mainstream and alternative practitioners have different ideas about what causes health problems, Burg said.

"In traditional Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture and herbal therapy, they think in terms of 'chi,' which is a kind of life force, a body energy," Burg said. "There is some research showing that acupuncture does a good job relieving pain and other problems, but there is no logical explanation within Western medicine for that."

In a written questionnaire mailed to 1,300 UF health faculty members, 32 percent of those who responded said they had used massage, 24 percent relaxation techniques, 23 percent dietary supplements and 16 percent chiropractic. Less than 10 percent of the faculty reported using herbs, acupuncture, hypnosis, homeopathic remedies or biofeedback. Women faculty members were significantly more likely than men to have tried alternative therapies.

Faculty from the colleges of Health Professions and Nursing were the highest users of alternative medicine -- at 76 and 74 percent, respectively. Of College of Medicine respondents, 52 percent had used alternative medicine. "Nurses have been doing a lot more research on alternative medicine for a much longer time than people in the other health professions," Burg said. "Nursing traditionally has been a holistic, patient-oriented profession, which fits in well with the culture of a many alternative therapies."

Neims noted that like the American population in general, health faculty are turning to nontraditional measures to maximize health, not to replace traditional, Western medicine. Many people are exploring new forms of treatment because they fit well with their philosophy of a mind-body connection. They also are seeking a personal relationship that may be difficult to forge in the typical physician office.

"If you regularly see a massage therapist or chiropractor, that can turn into a deep relationship with healing qualities of its own," Neims said. "One of the things I hope results from this interest in integrative medicine is that we all reaffirm that the relationship between patient and physician is very, very important."

University of Florida

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