Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine

Is this your patient?

OK, this picture was taken at a spa. But alternative medicine or as physicians like to call it, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), has already blurred the boundaries between conventional medicine and treatments you can get, say, at a nail salon.

This is not to show disrespect to CAM. CAM-related articles are increasingly showing up in medical literature and stodgy physicians and institutions are taking a fresh new look at traditional treatments and unorthodox practices. Some respected CAM treatments today include:

  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Reflexology
  • Massage therapy, particularly when it is aimed at relaxation rather than physical therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Aromatherapy

There are a number of confounding aspects to CAM, in that CAM is far less regulated than traditional medicine. The Food & Drug Administration, for example, regulates medicines like cholesterol-lowering drugs or digoxin, but does not cast the same scrutiny on nutritional supplements like gingko biloba or niacin. While massage therapists often need a state license, a person can easily set up shop offering aromatherapy treatments with little or no oversight at all.

These practitioners are supposed to be careful to avoid making claims that cannot be substantiated. For instance, you are really not supposed to hear claims that niacin lowers cholesterol or gingko biloba improves memory and concentration or peppermint and frankincense essential oils can cure migraines. However, most of us have heard them. Furthermore, by limiting advertising of these claims, the claims become a sort of hush-hush referral system. People who experiment with these treatments and get good results are quick to share them with others.

What does all of this mean to medical marketing? First of all, we are not knocking CAM treatments. We think some are bogus, but many offer real relief. But we do see this as a bit of a conundrum for the practicing conventional healthcare professional. We now have two teams and they get to play by different rules. Doctors, of course, are subject to closer scrutiny and have higher standards to meet and maintain to stay in practice. They also generally can make more money and bill insurance for their services. CAM practitioners are less regulated and expect to be paid cash for services with no guarantees. Patients who move between these worlds–and there are way more of them than you think–are forced to draw contrasts between the professions. Who they regard as credible, supportive, kind, caring, compassionate, affordable, and effective is not immediately clear.

How should these groups market themselves? CAM providers can definitely market themselves more effectively–and it is tricky business because they have legal limitations of which few are really aware. Most CAM providers work on a referral basis (like physicians) but could do more to raise awareness about what they offer.

Physicians can partner with reputable CAM providers to help bridge the them-versus-us mentality that some communities seem to foster. For example, physicians may want to recommend CAM to selected patients and may be able to provide a card or brochure to help the patient decide to see a CAM provider.

CAM practitioners should return the favor. Some CAM providers act like modern medicine is the enemy. That may make for nifty blog posts, but it does not help your practice or your patients. CAM providers should find and link efforts with reputable physicians and healthcare providers in the community so that they can refer selected patients to conventional treatments.