Tina Johnson and Elaine Porterfield
In the beginning, Michael Schaible was anything but an enthusiastic convert to alternative medicine. In fact, when he was referred to Kent Community Health Center in Kent, Wash., outside Seattle, for acupuncture to help him beat his pack-a-day cigarette habit, he was highly skeptical-and, frankly, fearful of the needles. But three months ago, after nicotine gum and patches hadn’t helped, he relented. “I was real nervous,” says Schaible, 31. “I hate pain.” But he hardly felt the needles inserted into his ears, hands, elbows, knees and shins, and, more surprisingly, he began to lose his taste for tobacco. “It’s getting better and better,” says Schaible. “It’s been an obvious change.”
As Americans look increasingly to therapies outside the mainstream-in a 1993 Harvard Medical School study, one in three people surveyed reported they had tried alternative medicine-Schaible is one of a small group of patients who are getting to choose from the best of both worlds. The Kent health center, which last October added practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine, naturopathy and nutritional counseling, and acupuncture to its staff of three conventional doctors, is the first in the nation to receive public funding-a two-year state grant of $750,00-for non-traditional medicine.
³If it works here, it can work anywhere,” says Dr. Marty Ross, 34, the clinic’s chief physician, referring to the ethnic diversity of the community that uses the clinic. Ross, who is not a specialist in alternative i-nedicine, spent three years in Washington, D.C. drafting health policy for foraner Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. “I think it”s just been a great experience. What drives it is the patients’ interest.”
And in a 1995 survey, 60 percent of Kent’s regular clientele expressed a strong interest in natural medicine. Most of them, though, were working- class patients who were uninsured or dependent on public health insurance that did not cover alternative medi-cine. “People were being discriminated against because they couldn’t afford to pay for alternative care,” says Merrily Manthey, a board member of Seattle’s Bastyr University, one of the country’s largest research and training centers for natural medicine. She helped persuade the local King County Council to fund an alternative-medicine clinic. Says Kent Pullen, a Republican councilman and a staunch supporter: “If it works 90 percent of the time, with lower costs and with no side effects, we’d be foolish to ignore it.”
The council’s approval, in 1995, turned out to be the easy part. Winning over the clinic’s medical staff was another matter. Some of the conventionally trained doctors at Kent objected to the lack of scientific proof for many of the nontraditional therapies and worried about potential lawsuits.
To help ease tensions between the two camps, Ross, who first became interested in alternative medicine as a resident at a Georgetown University- affiliated hospital in the nation’s capital, established a series of workshops in which differences could be aired. Health-care providers on both sides agreed on 20, mostly chronic, conditions, including arthritis and migraine headaches, for which prescribed alter- native care would be appropriate.
Washington State maintains significant restrictions on practitioners in nontraditional fields. Naturopaths, for instance, who employ diet, botanical medications, massage, exercise, colonics, spinal manipulation and homeopathy (the use of tiny amounts of organic substances believed to stimulate the body’s healing response), may not prescribe most drugs, per- form surgery or tend to such injuries as broken bones.
The combination suits Floyd Kerth. 59, whose poor health forced him to retire from his job as an electronics salesman in 1994, For years he had lived with high blood pressure, heart and cholesterol problems and a chronic disorder called sleep apnea, which caused him periodically to stop breathing in his sleep. Despite an arsenal of medications, Kerth still felt “lousy,” he says. Finally his doctor suggested the Kent clinic, where, naturapath prescribes a program of garlic capsules, vitamins and enzymes and a half-hour a day of walking, “I cut my blood pres- sure medication in half within a month,” says Kerth, who, with his regular doctor’s blessing, is now off nearly all prescribed drugs.
Michael Schaible is equally enthusiastic. Aside from his smoking habit, Schaible is mildly diabetic and has high blood pressure. He takes insulin for the former. Chinese herbs for the latter. He is even getting used to the acupuncture needles, which have reduced his smoking to five cigarettes a day. “I told myself a slight amount of pain was better than cancer,” he says. “But I barely feel it. Sometimes I just lie there and drift off.”