Is An Alternative Doctor Right For You?

Photo by Veer

Quick quiz: Traditional medical doctors are:

A) Angelic, live-saving godsends
B) Rushed, myopic pill-pushers
C) Both of the above

If you answered either B) or C), then perhaps it’s time for a serious change of perspective, via an alternative, holistic physician.

“The traditional American model is disease-based — ‘you break it, we fix it,’” Richard Firshein, D.O., director of the Firshein Center for Integrative Medicine in New York City, tells Yahoo Health. Firshein (who charges $600 for an initial consultation) says his approach generally attracts two types of patients: the frustrated one who’s already been to five other doctors, none of which has been able to identify the problem; and someone who is proactive and “sophisticated,” with an understanding of diet and a wariness of drug therapies. “In both cases,” he says, “there is a general dissatisfaction with the traditional American model.”

The holistic approach tries to zero in on the root cause of a problem, forcing doctors to “question everything” about a patient. Still, just the very term “alternative” — not to mention “integrative,” “homeopathic” and “comprehensive” — can be confusing enough to make you want to cling to your tried-and-true primary care provider forever. “While the terms are often used to mean the array of health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people,” the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, notes on its website. But hey, we’ll take a stab:

Integrative/Holistic/Comprehensive/Nutritional Medicine

These terms are highly nuanced and, believe it or not, largely interchangeable. They’re not sanctioned by any governing body nor do they indicate a specific type of medical degree or training. But physicians with post-graduate training in alternative areas — meditation, herbal nutrition, chelation therapy, acupuncture — may use them to describe their approaches as being not strictly “Western,” but a blend of traditional and alternative philosophies that targets the underlying cause of problems. The terms are used by health centers offering an array of treatments and by practitioners who are not doctors at all — wellness coaches or chiropractors or nutritional counselors, for example, who can dole out advice but not prescriptions.

“Integrative” and “comprehensive” indicate that the physician is using a blend of approaches and traditions; “holistic” means that docs are examining the “whole” person, not just symptoms; and “nutritional” conveys that the focus will be on diet and nutritional solutions, not medication. Oh, and it’s very likely that your insurance won’t cover these types of office visits.

Naturopathic Medicine

This fundamental principles of this approach include: trusting in the body’s inherent wisdom to heal itself, addressing the body as an integrated whole, treating the cause, and relying on the most natural and least toxic and invasive therapies. Naturopathy began in Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries; it was later developed in the United States, and enjoyed a revival in the 1970s during the rise of the holistic health movement. Today a doctor of naturopathy (ND) is a physician who has studied pre-med followed by a four-year program at one of seven accredited schools in the US; then was licensed by one of only 18 states offering full licensure (though they may practice in other states). Naturopaths can prescribe medications (with the exception of cancer drugs) and some controlled substances, and are trained to perform minor surgeries. Insurance coverage is also limited, but is starting to expand.

Homeopathic Medicine

If you’ve ever noticed the first signs of flu and tried warding them off by popping a capsule of those teensy little Oscillococcinum pellets (now sold at Walgreen’s and your favorite health-food store), then you’ve dabbled in homeopathy. The system of medicine was founded in the early 19th century by German physician, Dr. Samuel Christian Hahnemann, and is based on the principal that “like treats like,” meaning that disease is cured by a remedy — made of diluted plants and minerals — that creates symptoms similar to those experienced by the patient. Homeopathy is largely seen as controversial and lacking evidence of efficacy. But studies have shown the remedies to work on those with allergies, bronchitis, diarrhea and fibromyalgia, according to Dana Ullman, author of “Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines.” The U.S. does offer various training programs and courses in homeopathy, though no diploma or certificate is recognized as a license to practice, and licensure varies from state to state.

Still confused?

Ask yourself the following questions when choosing a holistic provider: Do you want an actual MD or are you okay with another type of practitioner? If so, how long has the provider practiced, and what additional training has he or she received? Also: You don’t have to ditch your traditional doc to visit an alternative practitioner, especially if you’re only seeking an initial consultation. It may be all you can handle anyway, as most integrative physicians don’t accept insurance, meaning you’ll need an out-of-network plan to get reimbursed at all.