Obama’s Comments on Acupuncture and Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Link to Prevention

Summary:


So what does the youthful new president of the United States of American think about complementary and alternative medicine? Despite very positive comments about the importance of prevention, we’ve seen nothing on this topic from Barack Obama other than a campaign-era letter of support for chiropractic. Thanks to a questioner in a public forum last month, we now have more of an answer. Here is the transcript of those comments, in full. The short answer: Obama wouldn’t mind a massage, thinks science has shown some value in acupuncture, and links this subject with his administration’s efforts to promote a prevention orientation via healthcare reform. Obama is articulate about the resistance to prevention orientation in both the political and healthcare arenas. It’s a rich exchange involving science, prevention and politics, mixed in with a little humor.

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U.S. President Barack Obama

I first heard that President Barack Obama had made a favorable comment on acupuncture through the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM). Obama was at a Town Hall meeting in St. Louis. The AAAOM linked me to an audio site and I listened to the comments. I recently found a written transcript, thanks to an anti-complementary medicine blogger Steven Novella. It’s a rich exchange, involving science, prevention and politics, mixed in with a little humor.

Questioner: I’m a licensed acupuncturist and licensed massage therapist in Florissant.  And so –

Obama: I could use one right now.  (Laughter.)  My back is stiff.  I’ve been working hard.

   
I think one basic principle

that we know is that the
more we do on
the prevention
side, the more we can obtain
serious savings down the
road.
 

 

Questioner: I’ll be happy to help you.  (Laughter.)  And this kind of fits
into what you were just talking about as far as health care.  I’m
wondering, as a practitioner of Oriental medicine, knowing that the
National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization has
discovered through their studies that alternative medicine often is
more cost-effective and very effective, how will alternative medicine
fit in your new health care program?

Obama:  Well, look, my attitude is that we should — we
should do what works.  So I think it is pretty well documented through
scientific studies that acupuncture, for example, can be very helpful
in relieving certain things like migraines and other ailments — or at
least as effective as more intrusive interventions.

I will let the science guide me.  We just swore in an outstanding
new Secretary of Health and Human Service, Kathleen Sebelius, former
governor of Kansas.  (Applause.)  It’s good to see that a Jay Hawk got
applause on this side of the border here. (Laughter.)  But she’s going
to do an outstanding job.  And my charge to her is, as we’re going
through health care reform let’s find out what works.

I think one basic principle that we know is that the more we do on
the prevention side, the more we can obtain serious savings down the
road.  So giving children early checkups, making sure that they get
immunized, making sure that they are diagnosed if they’ve got eyesight
problems, making sure that they’re taught proper nutrition to avoid a
life of obesity — those are all issues that we have some control over. 
And if we’re making those investments, we will save huge amounts of
money in the long-term.

   
 
 Unfortunately, the hardest thing

to do in politics — and certainly

in health care reform — has been
to get policymakers to make

investments early that will have
long-term payoffs.


Unfortunately, the hardest thing to do in politics — and certainly
in health care reform — has been to get policymakers to make
investments early that will have long-term payoffs.  Because people —
their attitude is, well, I’ll be out of office by the time that kid
grows up; and, the fact that they’re healthy, that doesn’t help me. 
And in the private sector insurance system, oftentimes insurers make
the same calculation. Their attitude is, well, people change jobs
enough for us to pay for the preventive medicine now when the problem
may not crop up for another 20 years and they’ll be long out of our
system, so we don’t want to reimburse it because it will make things
more costly.  That’s the logic of our health care system that we’re
going to have to change.

The recovery package put a huge amount in prevention.  We are, in
our budget, calling for significant increases in prevention.  And my
hope is, is that working in a bipartisan fashion we are going to be
able to get a health care reform bill on my desk before the end of the
year that will start seeing the kinds of investments that will make
everybody healthier.  All right?  (Applause.)


Comment:  I find Obama’s link of complementary and alternative medicine with “what we do on the prevention side” happily illuminating about his thinking. That he gets it becomes more obvious when he begins to describe how conventional politician and insurer habits of mind and practice get in the way of supporting any prevention-oriented approaches. The frustration is the lack of any clarity, to date, on how preventively-oriented, non-conventional practitioners fit into his administration’s prevention plans. Clarity on this would be useful. 

Anti-CAM blogger Novella, by the way, who provided this transcript, believes that Obama has made a “huge gaffe” with his apparent support of acupuncture, on the level of George W. Bush’s statement that the “jury is still out” on the question of evolution.

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John Weeks Written by John Weeks

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