The M.D. as an Alternative Practitioner

Did You Know That:

  • In the future, it is expected that the greatest number of practitioners of alternative medicine will be M.D.’s.1

  • A recent survey of family physicians in the U.S. found that more than half regularly prescribe alternative treatments or have tried alternative therapies themselves.2

  • In Resolution 514, the American Medical Association (AMA) “is encouraging its members to become better informed regarding alternative medicine and to participate in appropriate studies of it.”3

  • At this writing, thirty-seven or almost one-third of conventional medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins, offer courses in alternative medicine.4

  • Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York is one of a growing number of hospitals creating alternative medical clinics on site.

  • Dean Ornish, M.D., developed a program that reverses heart disease, a feat previously considered impossible by the conventional medical community. All treatments in Dr. Ornish’s program are considered alternative.5

An ever-increasing number of medical doctors are showing a genuine interest in practicing alternative medicine.6 Many of them have come to appreciate that the American health care consumers who use alternative medicine may know something they don’t about getting well. Many physicians are recognizing that they can be even better doctors for their patients by integrating unconventional and alternative medical treatments into their conventional practices. Because of this change in the opinions of M.D.’s about alternative medicine, many well-respected medical schools are now offering courses and programs in alternative medicine.

The idea of medical doctors becoming even better doctors for their patients is very good news because conventionally trained M.D.’s are skilled experts in a valuable system of medicine. Add to this expertise in conventional medicine a commitment to compassionately serve the patient as a person, plus an expertise in effective non-invasive treatments of alternative medicine — and the patient has an exceptional physician worth his or her weight in gold.

A doctor who genuinely appreciates and practices high quality alternative medicine is a doctor committed to a holistic approach to health care. Their practice is founded on the following “Principles of Ethics” of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA):

1. Physicians render service to humanity with full respect for the dignity of humankind, treating the total person: body, mind, and spirit. The treatment shall be at all times in the best interest of the patient.

2. Physicians continually improve their skill and medical knowledge and make it available to their patients.

3. Physicians recognize that patients have the right to share in making decisions that pertain to their treatment. They guide and educate patients toward this goal and actively encourage patients to share responsibility for their care.

4. A physician has the right to utilize all responsible methods of treatment. The physician has the obligation, however, to determine the efficacy and safety of such procedures and to acquire the skills and training necessary for the delivery of such care.7

These principles are at the very core of a healthy alternative/ unconventional medical practice. It is this group of doctors you can trust to practice high quality alternative medicine.

Still, one trend among M.D.’s practicing alternative medicine is not good news and that is the tendency of some medical doctors to embrace the techniques of alternative medicine without the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care. This particular group of doctors who call themselves “alternative medical doctors” define alternative medicine simply as any treatment “not widely taught at U.S. medical schools or generally available at U.S. hospitals.”8 Patients who are treated by these physicians have no guarantee that such a doctor using alternative treatments will also treat them in the spirit of a holistic approach to health care. Such a doctor may not treat their patients as human beings or even be interested in their thoughts and feelings about treatment. These doctors, even though they may be using alternative/unconventional techniques, may still see you only as a diagnosis — not as a person.

The fact is that this can be true for any practitioner of any alternative medical treatments, not just medical doctors. The difference is that most practitioners of alternative medical systems and modalities are, more often than not, committed to the ethos of the holistic approach to health care. They are taught to use this approach as the rationale for the application of the techniques of alternative medicine in which they are trained.

In other words, because most systems and modalities of alternative medicine are rooted in an ethos similar to those outlined above by the AHMA, the chances are much higher that a practitioner trained in an alternative system or modality of healing will have incorporated an appreciation for these ethics as part of their training and have a deep commitment to them in his or her practice.

This may not be the case for the Western-trained conventional biomedical doctor who, historically, has had no training in applying the principles that make up the ethos of a holistic approach to health care. In fact, some conventional doctors are now taking courses to learn the techniques of alternative medicine without training to appreciate the ethos of holistic approach to treatment so vital for the healthy application of alternative treatments.

Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac., of Lakewood, Colorado, and a competently trained and licensed acupuncturist, agrees and says, “Most western doctors have a hard time letting go of their Western paradigm, which is the basis of their medical education, so they can really learn a new way of healing. If they cannot do this, even for a little while, they cannot gain a new understanding. They need to learn to say, ‘I understand this concept. Now I have to go on and learn a different way to think as opposed to adapting alternative medicine to how Western medicine thinks it should be.'” 9

Regrettably, a lot of Western doctors are afraid to do this — to learn another system of medicine on the terms on which it was developed. In order for M.D.’s to practice “high quality” alternative medicine, they have to be willing to change not only what they have been doing, but also how they view the body, what healing is, and the role that a patient plays in the healing process.

Dr. Levy made an initial commitment to do just that when he began studying Chinese medicine. He says, “When I studied Chinese medicine, I made a commitment to myself not to bring a Western paradigm to my study. I went into it saying, ‘I don’t know anything about this. I have to be willing to start over again. I am going to learn this based on how the Oriental people view this, rather than trying to turn this medicine into conventional medicine or “Western” medicine using Eastern concepts.'”10
Unfortunately the broad scope of practice granted to an M.D. by their license allows them to take short, consolidated courses on complex systems of alternative medicine and then immediately offer them to the public. Dr. Levy feels, “No one, not even an M.D., can just take a weekend course in acupuncture and really call him- or herself a competent acupuncturist. I think this practice of M.D.’s taking quick classes and then practicing alternative techniques without responsible training is an important issue for both the public and the state licensing bodies to look at.”11

Another trend to watch for is the increasing number of alternative medical clinics being run by an M.D. as the oversight physician, with a variety of alternative practitioners such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and body workers, herbalists, and others all working under the authority of the M.D. According to Robert Duggan, M.Ac., Dipl.Ac. (NCCA), who teaches “The Philosophy and Practice of Healing” at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, this approach is “the wave to come, be it for good or ill.”12 Many worry that if the M.D. is not committed to overseeing an alternative clinic that is founded on the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care, then such a clinic could become a patient mill that fails to provide high quality alternative medical care. Fortunately, there are a growing number of M.D.’s who are committed to the spirit and ethos of holistic approach to health care and many of them will oversee these developing alternative medical clinics. Still, it is in your best interest to do the Five Step process outlined in Part I of this book to be sure you receive high quality alternative medicine when considering treatment at such a clinic.

Here are two stories about two very different alternative medical doctors:

Two years ago, I was in bad car accident. I had injuries to my right knee, a broken collar bone, as well as a concussion and “internal bruising.” After two surgeries on my knee, I took a month off work to heal my other injuries. But at the end of the month, I did not feel back to my old self.

Five months after the accident, my back and neck were still hurting me; my body was stiff and bruised-feeling; my right knee was still causing me problems; my digestive system did not seem to work right; and, worst of all, I was having a recurring nightmare of the accident and at times had episodes of unexpected terror when riding in or driving a car. No matter what I did, I felt “out of sorts” all the time. My body just did not feel right.

My older brother knew about all this and suggested I see an M.D. he said might be able to help me. He said that this doctor was into “different things” than most medical doctors but assured me that he was not a quack. Given that I had a lot of respect for my brother, I decided to go see this doctor.

When I went to this doctor’s office, I was given some papers to read. One was an article on alternative medicine and another was on holistic medicine. I read the information in the articles and many of the ideas were new to me. Still, I especially liked the idea that I would be seen by my doctor as a human being rather than a diagnosis and that the doctor would want to really hear my thoughts and feelings about my health condition.
When the doctor came into the examination room, he greeted me with a warm “Hello!” along with a smile and a handshake. He sat down and asked me to tell him why I was there to see him. As I told him my story, I was amazed at how he listened to me: he really listened. Afterwards, he asked me some questions about my personal life and about my job, as well as how I was doing generally. Next he gave me a physical examination with special attention to the auto injuries. He was very gentle and told me to let him know if anything he was doing was causing me pain. When he finished the physical, he shared with me some of the treatments that he thought would be good for me based on the exam and what I had told him.
He talked about the idea of a “healing program” that would help me really get over the effects of the auto accident. First he discussed what we could do for my body. As part of the healing program, he suggested I take a beginning hatha yoga class to stretch out my tightened muscles and to massage my internal organs. He said that would help me let go of some of the trauma my body was holding onto from the accident as well as possibly help my digestive system to work better. He also told me about homeopathy and said he had some homeopathic remedies that could help the bruised feeling inside my body and even help with my digestion. Next he talked about the terror episodes I was having and told me that this was a normal reaction after such a traumatic event. He suggested another homeopathic remedy for this as well as three to six sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). These sessions would focus on the accident and help me learn to let go of the trauma that was causing the terror episodes.
After sharing his recommendations, this doctor asked me if I had any questions or concerns about his ideas for a healing program. I thought for a minute and told him I was somewhat familiar with yoga, but asked him to explain to me exactly how the homeopathic medicine worked and what EMDR was. The information he shared with me about homeopathy and EMDR was new but seemed to make sense. He gave me several articles and a brochure to help me understand them both even better.
He told me that even though he could not absolutely
guarantee it, he believed I could expect to feel at least 75 percent better in about three or four months if I did the whole program. He then asked me if I would be interested in doing the healing program as he had described. I told him I was.
To my surprise, he then asked me if there was anything I could think of that would be good to include in my “healing program.” I thought for a moment and said it would probably help if I stopped eating as much junk food and added more “rabbit food” into my diet. He laughed and agreed and offered to give me some information on the power of foods to cause illness or to heal.

After that, he asked me a few more questions, all of which seemed very strange to me. Like: Did I crave sweets or fatty foods most? Was I bothered by drafts? What time of day was the hardest for me? How did I feel about being in groups of people? What time of night did my nightmares usually take place? Was there a particular time of day that I got my terror reactions in a car?

I answered his questions and he explained that my answers were helping him to determine exactly which homeopathic remedies would be best for me.

He then got up and went over to the cabinet and took some small white pills out of a bottle and put them in a small envelope for me. He also gave me a small bottle with an eye dropper that also had homeopathic medicine in it. He wrote down the instructions as to how I was to take the medicines. Then he walked me out to the front office where he told his assistant to schedule my EMDR sessions and to give me a list of yoga instructors in town that offered the kind of class he suggested.

The last thing he did was to thank me for coming in. He asked me to remember that we were partners in my healing program and that if it was to work I had to be sure to do my part by taking a beginning yoga class, taking the homeopathic medicines as prescribed, doing the EMDR sessions, and eating more “rabbit food.” Also, I was to come back in two weeks to review my progress with him and to feel free to call if I had any questions or concerns. I thanked him and, without even thinking about it, gave him a hug. I was embarrassed by my behavior until he told me that “hugs are spoken freely in this office.”

I did the whole healing program for three and a half months and can honestly say I did feel tremendously better. My nightmares have stopped. I do not feel that bruised feeling anymore. And my body is now very supple and relaxed. My knee is also much improved and I have not had a terror episode while riding in a car for four weeks. I have even signed up for an intermediate yoga class and have started to meditate. I still eat some junk food but have really learned to enjoy and appreciate the “rabbit food.”

It is obvious that Jessica was fortunate to find a medical doctor not just trained in the techniques of alternative medicine, but also fully committed to practicing the spirit of holistic medicine.

I enjoy playing tennis any chance I can. It is not only a way for me to keep fit, but it is also a way for me to enjoy being with my friends. One weekend, as I was moving to return a difficult serve, I felt a sharp pain. I felt it strongly as I tried to move my arm at the elbow joint. It was obvious to me (and everyone else) that I may have done some serious damage and would not be on the courts for awhile.

An acquaintance suggested I go see their doctor, who specialized in sports injuries and also was into “alternative medicine.” My friend felt that maybe this doctor’s alternative treatments might help my arm heal faster. I did not like the idea of being off the courts for a prolonged period of time, so I decided to give this doctor a try.

I felt fortunate that I was able to get into see him the next day. I arrived at his office and was given the usual paperwork to fill out. After about fifteen minutes, a nurse escorted me into a treatment room and curtly told me to undress and to put on the robe that was hanging on the hook. Though somewhat startled by this instruction, I did as requested.

A few minutes later the doctor came in. Immediately, he walked over and picked up my chart and began to read my intake form. He never looked at me or even said, “Hello.” Next, he walked over to me and, without asking or saying anything, took my right arm and moved it toward him so he could look at it. The pain was excruciating. And I let him know it! His only comment was, “Oh, that hurts?” After looking at my elbow and determining that I was really in pain, he went over to the counter and got some needles. Without ever saying a word about what he was going to do, he stuck five needles in my right arm at various places. Some of the needles were very painful. Not once did he say anything. Not only that, then he left the room and left me just sitting there with those five damn needles in my arm! About twenty minutes later he came back and took the needles out. While he was making some notes in my chart, he said he wanted to see me in five days to do another treatment. I smiled politely as he then left the room.

After I left his office, I noticed that my arm was not quite as sore as before and I could even move it a little better. But what I noticed most of all was my rage.

I had never been treated by any doctor with such disrespect. I mean, even the doctors in the Marines were more humane than this guy. Even though I did feel some improvement in my arm, there was no way I was going back to see this “alternative” doctor again.

Fortunately, there are not many doctors that would treat a patient with such disrespect. Still, Nathan’s story makes an important point: just because a medical doctor is trained in the techniques of alternative medicine is no guarantee that that treatment will be done in the spirit of a holistic approach to treatment.

Many of the basic principles and techniques of alternative medicine as practiced by medical doctors are being packaged under a number of different labels for the 1990s. The most popular of these are holistic medicine, alternative medicine, complementary medicine, and integrative medicine. Some other popular labels describing alternative treatments include environmental medicine and preventive medicine. (These labels are not just being used by medical doctors to describe their alternative practices. Many other alternative practitioners, including acupuncturists, naturopaths, chiropractors, and even massage therapists, have taken to describing what they do as holistic, alternative, complementary, or integrative health care.)

No matter how an M.D. labels his or her practice, it is still
critical that you make sure that they are competently trained in the nonconventional treatments they practice and that they are committed to practicing in the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach. By doing this, you can be assured of getting high quality alternative medical care.

Holistic medicine, alternative medicine, conventional medicine, and integrative medicine all advocate the use of alternative/ unconventional medical treatments, but where they differ is in the role such treatments play in relationship to conventional medicine.

Holistic Medicine

Holistic physicians are conventionally trained doctors who have chosen to go beyond the basic biomedical philosophical underpinnings of their training as “doctors.” They have opened their hearts and minds to include an appreciation of other medicines from different cultures, different times, and different philosophies in their commitment to “treat the whole person.”

The American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) defines holistic medicine: “This emerging medical specialty is an art and science that treats and prevents disease, while focusing on empowering patients to create a condition of optimal health. Far more than the absence of illness, this state of health is a dynamic balance of the physical, environmental, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of an individual. As both a healer and health educator, the holistic physician, in partnership with the patient, addresses the causes of disease in addition to treating its symptoms.”13

Interestingly, the initial integration of the spirit and ethos of the holistic approach to health care as an influential force in modern conventional biomedical practices began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the advent of the holistic medical movement. Though its influence was slow in creating real changes in health care, the changes are steadily increasing and continue to this day.

Many feel that this process formally began with the personal search of one man, Evarts Loomis, M.D., F.A.C.S.I., often called “the father of holistic medicine.” In 1940, while on assignment in Newfoundland, Dr. Loomis had a dream. “One night I awoke with the words, ‘Treat the whole person,’ echoing through my mind,” he says. “I saw that there were spiritual, emotional, as well as physical, aspects of man and that they all needed to be looked at during illness. I saw that I had just been treating the effects of illness. Right then I decided to investigate all aspects of man to find the causes of illness.”14

This concept was unheard of in the conventional medicine of the 1940s and 1950s and so, on their own, Dr. Loomis and his wife Vera nurtured this dream. In 1958 they founded “Meadowlark,” considered the first holistic medical retreat center in the United States.

Dr. Loomis developed a basic program that included a
thorough physical examination and such treatments as nutritional counseling, exercise, homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, therapeutic fasts, hatha yoga, art and music therapy, and psycho-spiritual counseling, with daily group therapy sessions incorporating the use of dreams, Progoffian journaling, and instruction in meditative techniques.

Dr. Loomis observed that during an illness the emotions and the mind played an important role in the healing process. So guests at Meadowlark worked to heal resentments through forgiveness techniques and journaled on the meaning of their lives, and considered why their illness had come to them and what it had to teach them. The word patient wasn’t used, and staff were not distinguished from the guests by white coats.

“Through fifty some years of practice, and more than 6,000 Meadowlark guests, I have seen many dramatic healings that defy orthodox Western medicine,” Dr. Loomis says. “I came to understand that there were no incurable diseases, just incurable minds.”15

Patients to this day still seek out Dr. Loomis for his assistance. Just recently, a woman from Chicago called Dr. Loomis. She had been to Meadowlark six times while it was under his direction. She had originally come to Meadowlark to heal a terminal lung cancer condition. Through Dr. Loomis’s program, it went into remission. Now, twelve years later, her cancer returned but had not spread. She called to say how grateful she was for those twelve years of remission and asked, “Could Dr. Loomis help again?” At eighty-six, Dr. Loomis is still active as a lecturer, teacher, and counselor with his partner, Fay L. Loomis.

By the 1970s, Dr. Loomis’s principles of holistic medicine were beginning to be appreciated and then practiced by a small but dedicated group of medical doctors. In 1978, Norman Shealy, M.D., and some of these doctors founded the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA). Today, there are a respectable number of medical doctors who describe their practice of alternative/unconventional treatments as holistic medicine.

Alternative Medicine

In the mid-1980s the term “alternative medicine” began to gain popularity. Today, it is now more recognized and used by the public and the press when referring to nonconventional medical health care treatments than the terms holistic, complementary, or integral.

Usually, medical doctors who describe themselves as alternative medical doctors see their practices as an “alternative” to regular conventional medicine. To many of these doctors, alternative implies an either/or situation in treatment: that either unconventional treatments are used or conventional medicine is used.

For medical doctors who use the label of “alternative medicine” to describe their medical practices, alternative can mean two very different things: (1) That they are essentially the same as the holistic doctor in their philosophy of treatment and are committed to practicing in the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care in the application of alternative treatments (high quality alternative medicine) or, (2) that they use treatments that are an “alternative” to conventional medicine – not generally taught at U.S. medical schools – while not incorporating the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach to health care.

Given this, it is important to verify a doctor’s competency in alternative treatments and also to make sure they are committed to including the spirit and ethos of a holistic approach in
their practice.

Complementary Medicine

Beginning in the 1990s, a growing number of doctors and hospitals began to describe their use of unconventional and alternative medical treatments as complementary medicine. The emphasis was on using nonconventional treatments as a complement to already prescribed conventional medical treatment.

Different from the “either/or” nuance of the “alternative” label for medical treatment, in complementary medicine, nonconventional treatments are used as an adjunct to conventional treatments. The conventional medical treatments are the primary form of treatment while other systems of medicine, modalities, and nonconventional treatments play a secondary role to support and complement the conventional medical treatment.

Author Larry Dossey, M.D., shares a personal experience with a patient who requested her own form of complementary medicine when he was in practice as an internist several years ago. “I had a patient who had an enlarged ovary and needed surgery because we were concerned it might be cancerous,” he says. “This woman had a very sophisticated, complex view of the world that I really admired and shared. As I was sorting through all the gynecologists who I could refer her to, the question in my mind was, ‘Who in the world am I going to ask to operate on this woman?’ My patient strongly believed in the power of music, of hypnosis, of pyramids, and that only positive things be said to her while she was under anesthesia.

“I thought of one woman gynecologist who I thought would be open to working within the belief systems of this woman. So I asked the physician, ‘Can you honor this patient’s beliefs about healing even though they may be very different than your own?’ The doctor felt that she could. Then I asked the same question of the anesthesiologist and the nursing staff. Everyone said that they would cooperate.

“When my patient arrived at her room at the hospital, she set up a sound system and played music she felt would help her heal. She made other changes to the room, including hanging art work from her home so she could have the kind of visual input in a sterile room that she felt was important to her.

“She had the surgery as scheduled and it went very well. The most impressive result was that she was released about three days ahead of prediction. Also worthy of note: The gynecologist and the entire staff learned a tremendous amount about how these things can really help a patient.”16
The term “complementary care” is now being used to describe the philosophy of treatment of a number of progressive and innovative hospitals and clinics. Special emphasis has been placed on utilizing this approach with cancer patients at such institutions as Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.17 In some programs, Ayurveda, behavioral medicine, Chinese medicine, chiropractic, energy medicine, environmental medicine, homeopathy, Native American medicine, naturopathic medicine,
nutritional medicine, and osteopathic medicine are being used as adjuncts to conventional medical treatments.18 Some of the more popular “complementary treatments” include meditation and other stress reduction techniques, i.e., biofeedback, therapeutic massage/therapeutic touch, herbal medicine, and prayer therapy.

Integrative Medicine

The most recent of the more popular terms being used to describe the use of unconventional/alternative treatments by medical doctors and other health care practitioners, is integrative medicine (sometimes also called “integral medicine”). Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and author of Spontaneous Healing (Knopf, 1995), has suggested that our current system of medical education be overhauled so that our future doctors can learn alternative systems of medicine and healing with a full appreciation of the healing power of nature and other holistic principles as part of their training.

Integrative medicine seeks to recognize and appreciate the value and wisdom of all healing and medical traditions, giving each their due respect. Different than complementary medicine, which emphasizes the use of unconventional treatments as an adjunct to conventional medicine, integrative medicine seeks to utilize whatever modalities and treatments are the most effective, without preference to any one system, for treating the health care needs of the patients.

Dr. Butch Levy, medical doctor and licensed acupuncturist, says, “A lot of people take herbs and also take their Western medicines. I think that is fine. Crossover is not a problem. It’s not about which system of medicine is better than the other. It is about what works.”19
Medical doctors who practice integrative medicine advocate a combination approach to treatment, including mainstream medicine and nonconventional treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. No favorable bias is given to any one system of medicine, modality, or treatment. All are looked at without prejudice with only one question in mind, “Which systems, modalities, or treatments are the best to use for the patient’s condition?”

Leonard Wisneski, M.D., medical director for the Marriott Corporation, says, “Integral medicine combines the best of conventional, alternative, and wellness medicines and is the structure for the future of health care.”21 There is a growing interest in this approach by the public and also the medical community. Dr. Levy agrees. “I think there are a lot of physicians who have really opened their minds a little more to trying to embrace other philosophies of medicine,” he says. “It’s what the public wants. People want something other than just conventional medicine.”20

Given the rapidly growing appreciation for other systems of medicine and the increasing body of research that verifies their efficacy, it is quite likely that “integrative medicine” is truly the medicine of the future.

Health Conditions That Respond Best
To An M.D. Using Alternative Medicine

Increasingly the public and conventional doctors recognize that conventional medicine alone does not have all the answers to our health care needs. There is also a growing appreciation for the role that unconventional/alternative treatments can play to address this problem. This is especially so when it comes to chronic health conditions and end-stage illnesses.
Dr. Levy says, “I have found that most physicians that deal with chronic problems that they can’t solve usually are more open to me as an alternative medical doctor than physicians who deal with acute-care medicine. I think that physicians who have been in practice a while, treating chronic illness, debilitating diseases, and end-stage illnesses (cancer, kidney disease, liver disease) realize that what they have to offer really does not get these people well.”22
As mentioned earlier, the use of alternative treatments for cancer is now being incorporated as an adjunct to conventional medicine in many respected hospitals and clinics as “complementary medicine” or “complementary care.” “I have a lot of specialists who are willing to send me their patients because they are frustrated and they don’t know what to do,” Dr. Levy says. “For example I had one oncologist say to me, ‘You know I have been in practice twenty-five years doing this and it is really apparent that what I do is not very satisfactory to a lot of people. If you have a better way of approaching it, I am certainly willing to listen to that approach because I realize what I do doesn’t offer everything.’ I think this is good example of what is starting to change in medicine.”23

Additions to Step Two:

Get Good Referrals

The oldest association representing physicians who practice alternative medicine is the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA). Their members and officers represent some of the most visible and respected medical providers of alternative medicine in this country, including: Bernie Siegel, M.D.; Jonathan Collin, M.D., editor of the Townsend Letter; Christiane Northrup, M.D.; Deepak Chopra, M.D.; and Andrew Weil, M.D.

If you are looking for a competent alternative medical doctor, the American Holistic Medical Association will provide you with some good prospects to investigate. The AHMA will give you the names of practicing doctors in your area who are members of their association. Although they are good candidates, the referrals are not offered with a guarantee. Also the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) in Anaheim, California, has a comprehensive referral network.

Another source of good referrals is the American College of Advancement in Medicine in Laguna Hills, California. It provides information and a referral list of M.D.’s around the world trained in preventive medicine, including chelation therapy.

Consider checking with American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), which has a network of over six hundred physicians practicing a variety of alternative medical treatments. To find M.D.’s trained in homeopathy, contact the National Center for Homeopathy and ask for their referral list. You can also find referrals through the American Preventive Medical Association, an advocacy organization with physicians, other alternative practitioners, and the public as members. The Price-Pottinger Foundation in San Diego, California, is also an excellent referral source.

Additions to Step Three:

Screen the Candidates

Once you have found an alternative medical doctor who interests you, call his or her office. You can gather a tremendous amount of valuable information by asking the right questions of the doctor’s office staff. Here are some suggestions:

Will you describe the doctor’s training in any techniques he or she didn’t learn in medical school?

Be sure to find out the number of hours of training the doctor has had in each technique. In addition, ask for board or organizational certifications of completion and competency.

For example, medical doctors who have incorporated acupuncture into their conventional practice might experience success in treating certain conditions that their conventional training alone would not afford them, such as acute and chronic pain that had not responded to conventional medical treatments.
Be careful of the doctors practicing acupuncture with only a small amount of training. A board-certified acupuncturist is required to have over fifteen hundred hours of training. The difference between the experience of being treated by a weekend-seminar acupuncturist and a well-trained, certified acupuncturist can be dramatic.

Regarding M.D.’s who practice homeopathy, Maesimund Panos, M.D., a homeopathic physician and coauthor of Homeopathic Medicine at Home (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1981), says, “The answer you don’t want to hear is that they were trained in self-help study groups. Study groups are great, but you want your homeopathic care to come from a professional.”24

To determine how much training an M.D. should have to competently treat you with a specific alternative technique, call the technique’s professional association [see Reference Section] and ask for their standards of competence. Associations and trade organizations representing osteopathic manipulation or Chinese medical techniques, for example, expect M.D.’s to earn hundreds of hours of training from educational facilities specializing in their technique in order to meet minimum competence levels.

How long has the doctor been using these alternative treatments?

Better to be treated by someone who has had the time and hours to mature in the practice and use of his or her chosen alternative treatments than to have a physician “practicing” on you. If the physician has very few hours of training in alternative treatments and is just beginning to use them on his or her patients, you might want to find another physician.

What success has the doctor had in treating patients with physical problems similar to mine?

If you have a specific condition to correct, knowing the doctor’s track record will be a significant factor in deciding to work with this physician or not. Ask to have a few patients call you who have had similar problems which the doctor has successfully helped. Generally, if patients are happy with their results, they are apt to share them.

Additions to Step Four:

Interview the Provider

Do you practice a holistic approach to health care? If so, what does that exactly mean to you?

If this physician has no interest in practicing in the spirit of holistic health care, you’ll know immediately from his or her answer to this question. If the physician does practice holistically, he or she will be happy to share with you exactly what that means to them. Such information can help you decide if they are the right doctor for you.

Do you practice alternative techniques exclusively or in tandem with conventional medicine?

The answer to this question should give you an indication of how much alternative medicine the physician uses in his or her practice and if they are alternative, complementary, or integral in their approach.

Can you describe your training in the alternative techniques you use and how long you have used them?

If you feel you did not get a complete answer to this question from the staff, ask it again of the physician. It is critical that you are confident that this physician is competent in the alternative
practices he or she uses before agreeing to treatment.

Additions to Step Five:

Form a Partnership

First and foremost, recognize that even though the person sitting across from you is the “doctor,” he or she is also a human being like you. To get the most out of your relationship with this professional, you would be wise to respect this person and to recognize their feelings and concerns about your situation.
Also, it is important to understand that this physician has been trained for years to believe that he or she is the responsible party. Even if your doctor is clearly committed to the spirit of a holistic approach to treatment, he or she has professional and licensing constraints to which he or she still must be sensitive. Dr. Christiane Northrup explains, “It’s difficult in a medical situation where you are the doctor. You’re expected to know everything and not make a mistake. No matter what happens, it’s your fault. So it’s going to be difficult to give the reins or part of the reins over to your patients.”26
Still, it is important that you communicate exactly what you need and want, as well as what you do not want, so you can determine if this is the doctor for you. When working with a physician, Bernie Siegel, M.D., says, “I am inflexible about how I’m treated. I want to be treated like a human being – with respect. Also, I want to work with someone who is vulnerable enough to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ when things go wrong.”25

What To Expect During An Appointment With An M.D. As An Alternative Medicine Provider

Most M.D.’s begin their initial appointment with a patient by taking a basic medical history and completing a routine physical exam. From this point, your appointment with an M.D. who practices alternative medicine can go in a variety of different directions, depending on what alternative treatments are provided and whether he or she is alternative, holistic, complementary, or integrative in how he or she uses alternative treatments.

If the M.D. has training in homeopathy, then a more extensive period of questioning, about everything from your sleeping habits to your favorite foods, will generally occur before a remedy is prescribed. If the M.D. uses manipulative therapies, he or she might lightly touch your back to find areas of swelling or tenderness.

Whatever modality of alternative medicine a physician uses, do some research before your first appointment so you are familiar with the treatments the physician may use. This research can be especially valuable to you if the physician gives you a choice of which therapies you’d like him or her to do. Dr. Levy says, “With my patients, I explain that there are different models of medicine and healing, and different ways of treating. Then I present them with a choice. I say, ‘This is what I can do. Here are the things that you can choose from.’ I will say, ‘This is an allopathic [biomedical] approach and here is what it will do and not do for you. If you are interested in an alternative, here are some other treatments that I do and here is what they will do and not do for you.’ “27

You may find in your experience with alternative medicine that the results do not take place as fast as the results from
conventional medicine. Patients who are suffering from chronic illnesses need an extra dosage of patience regarding alternative medicine because they may not see marked change for six months or more. However, the advantage is that, in such cases, alternative medicine will probably have addressed the cause and made definite headway in permanently healing the condition.

Some doctors who take a more integrative approach to alternative medical treatment may initially address the symptoms and after address the deeper causes. “Usually I have to treat people initially for the problem, the symptoms, because in order to be credible I have to produce some relief,” Dr. Levy says. “And the truth is they are entitled to this relief. Over time, this builds trust and confidence and then I can say to them, ‘We treated the problem – the symptoms – now we have go deeper and treat the pattern that created the problem – the cause – or else the problem will just return.’ “28

An appointment with an M.D. who practices alternative medicine can include conversations ranging from the benefits of surgery to the value to be gained from “laying on of hands” or prayer therapy. There is a very wide range of treatments you may be offered. Given this, your best tactic is to gather as much information about the physician, especially their qualifications, to give you those treatments.

Cost and Insurance


A visit to an M.D. practicing alternative medicine may or may not be similar to what you would pay a regular medical doctor. Sometimes it will actually cost you less, because the treatments do not require medical tests and are fairly simple procedures. Other times the cost can be much higher because extensive testing may be required and/or the treatments, by their nature, are costly. Given this, you would be wise to ask before treatment what procedures are usually involved for your condition and what they usually cost.


Although all M.D.’s and most of their conventional treatments are covered by insurance plans if they are found to be medically necessary, not all plans cover M.D.’s performing alternative medical treatments. Even though more and more plans are covering some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, biofeedback, and homeopathy, most plans still do not. For this reason, it is important to check with your insurance carrier to see if they will pay for your alternative medical treatments and, if so, under what circumstances.

However, research indicates that many people are still willing to try alternative treatments even if they aren’t covered by their health insurance plans. “The biggest issue is cost,” Dr. Levy says. “If their insurance doesn’t cover alternative treatments, it is difficult for people sometimes to afford it. Still, even with this the majority of my patients are open to trying it.”29

Education, Training and Licensing

The titles or labels of alternative M.D., holistic M.D., complementary M.D., or integral M.D. are self-proclaimed and purely voluntary. No special courses are required and no tests are administered to demonstrate competency. It is in your best interest to determine what you can expect from your doctor before your first appointment.

All M.D.’s are educated and trained in conventional biomedical philosophy and procedures in medical school. Training for competency in alternative treatments is not yet a part of that process – nor is training in the spirit of the holistic approach to health care, as discussed throughout this chapter. Dr. Norman Shealy, founding president of the American Holistic Medical Association, says, “Training [in alternative health care techniques] is the greatest weakness of the whole holistic [alternative] movement because there are no residencies. There aren’t even any fellowships of any significance. So virtually all of
the holistic [alternative] physicians have trained themselves through special post-graduate work.”30 How much training the doctor believes he or she should have in order to be competent is a decision each one makes for him- or herself. Whether the doctor’s standards for competency in a particular alternative treatment are as high as yours is a decision for you to make.

Fortunately, the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) is sensitive to this issue and has recently established the American Board of Holistic Medicine (ABHM) . . . “for the purpose of certifying physicians as practitioners of holistic medicine.”31 The exam an applicant must take to become certified consists of seven core knowledge areas: nutrition, physical activity, environmental medicine, behavioral medicine, social health, energy medicine, and spiritual attunement. It will also cover six secondary subjects: botanical medicine, homeopathy, ethno-medicine (traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Native American medicine), manual medicine (manipulation, body work, etc.), biomolecular therapies, and health promotion. Further, “In addition to the board examination, the certification process will include an interview, a self-administered test of holistic health, and a minimum of six years in active medical practice (which can include residency training).”32 Such trends in conventional medicine are welcome, given the public interest and desire for high quality alternative medical care.

In many states, conventional medical doctors, just by the broad scope of their license to practice, can provide alternative treatments that they have not been required to demonstrate competency in. There are exceptions to this. For example, in New Mexico, licensed medical doctors must have a separate license to practice acupuncture. This means that all M.D.’s practicing
Chinese medicine in New Mexico have to pass the same exam that is required of graduates of four-year Chinese medical schools, who have had over fifteen hundred hours of study to their credit. Some other states place minimum requirements of hours studied, ranging from two hundred to one thousand hours.

In Arizona, in order for M.D.’s or D.O.’s to legally practice homeopathy, they must take a separate exam from their regular license to demonstrate competency in homeopathic medicine.

Many feel that these kinds of requirements of medical doctors will be a growing trend in other states to protect people seeking competent high quality alternative medical treatment from medical doctors.

Closing Thoughts

M.D.’s who are well trained in conventional medicine, embrace a holistic approach to health care, and have competent training in alternative medical treatments, are unquestionably some of the finest health care providers in the profession.

It is these doctors that deserve special recognition because they have also been, and still are, courageous pioneers who have faced the scrutiny and criticism of their peers to speak out about the value of alternative medical systems so different from their original, conventional medical training.

It is still true today that the health care professional whose opinion is most respected and listened to is the M.D. For that reason, M.D.’s who have placed their businesses and professional reputations at risk to speak about the importance of the spirit of a holistic approach to health care and the value of alternative therapies are nothing short of heroes and heroines.


1. William Collinge. The American Holistic Health Association CompleteGuide to Alternative Medicine (Warner Books, 1996), 314.

2. George Howe Colt. “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me,” Life, September 1996, 36.

3. “Resolution 514 — Alternative (Complementary) Medicine,” Reference Committee E, 10–11. From Washington Delegation to American Medical Association House of Delegates.

4. “Alternative Medical Courses Taught at U.S. Medical Schools,” The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Center for Alternative/
Complementary Medicine.

5. Dean Ornish, M.D. Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ivy Books, 1996).

6. NIH. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993), xli.

7. American Holistic Medical Association brochure.

8. David Eisenberg, M.D. “Unconventional Medicine in the
United States,” New England Journal of Medicine, January 28, 1993, 246.

9. Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac. Personal interview, June 1996.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Robert Duggan, M.Ac., Dipl.Ac. (NCCA), Personal interview, July 1996.

13. American Holistic Medical Association brochure.

14. Evarts Loomis, M.D., F.A.C.S.I. Personal interview, Fall 1991.

15. Evarts Loomis, M.D., F.A.C.S.I. Personal correspondence, July 1996.

16. Larry Dossey, M.D. Personal interview, Fall 1989.

17. Doug Podlosky. “A New Age of Healing Hands,” U.S. News & World Report, February 5, 1996, 71–74.

18. American Holistic Medical Association brochure.
19. Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac. Personal interview, June 1996.

20. Leonard Wisneski, M.D. Personal interview, September 1989.

21. Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac. Personal interview, June 1996.

22. Ibid.23. Ibid.

24. Bill Gottlieb. New Choices in Natural Healing (Rodale Press, 1995), 68.

25. Mary Walker. “Choosing a Holistic M.D.,” East/West Journal, April 1990, 24.

26. Ibid.

27. Butch Levy, M.D., L.Ac. Personal interview, June 1996.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Mary Walker. “Choosing a Holistic M.D.,” East/West Journal, April 1990, 211.

31. American Holistic Medical Association brochure.

32. Ibid.

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Written by Michael Alan Morton PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021