Whether they are medical professionals or are accessing care, many Rhode Islanders are beginning to notice a shift in local health care practices. With acupuncture centers popping up across the state, more and more caregivers seeking Reiki certification, and even places like Miriam Hospital adding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) services, there is an increasing number of options for treatment. As these services become more prevalent, locals are increasingly beginning to consider many different types of treatment and compare less regionally traditional practices with Western medicine.
Upon reaching out to several Rhode Islanders who have accessed CAM care, one commonality was that many felt like Western medicine was not offering enough of a solution. Though some recognized that more regionally traditional care was necessary, depending on their illness, others felt they could replace their Western treatments altogether. For example, instead of relying on pain-relieving medication, one individual I spoke with sought out a traditional form of Eastern massage therapy that reportedly relieved pain and eventually helped alleviate symptoms completely.
An understanding of the background of both complementary and alternative medicine is important in shaping the discussion. While it is often reduced to labels of either “Western,” or “Eastern,” some professionals feel this is oversimplified. With hundreds of different treatments from all over the world, this isn’t really an accurate depiction of the myriad care options. Many professionals choose to use the terms “complementary” and “alternative” to clarify this. According to the National Cancer Institute, the term complementary medicine refers to medicinal practices that are used alongside regionally traditional practices. Alternative medicine refers to any treatment that is used to replace Western treatment.
The Cancer Center at Miriam Hospital is a prime example of a well-established medical center that is making a shift toward offering complementary practices. Known as one of the best cancer treatment centers in the nation, the center employs a number of Eastern-influenced options including Reiki, massage and hypnosis. A close friend who received treatment over the past year at the center had several thoughts on the many complementary treatment options. She reported that the services were free, and many of the staff who offer them were very kind and thorough in presenting the services.
She also reported that she holds mixed feelings about the services. While she feels they are excellent for stress management and that practices such as Reiki and massage help patients cope with their illness, she also feels that many alternative treatments are often romanticized. She stated, “As a cancer patient, I find it to be insensitive that people think those practices are helpful for anything other then stress relief. But they are really good for that.” A former office manager for a Providence-based naturopathic medicine center similarly commented, “I would relate [acupuncture] more to therapy than something that can replace more Westernized medicine. Something that I really didn’t like about the experience was how cancer patients would often grab onto it as some last-ditch effort to beat the odds. It was one of the things that ultimately made me decide that I didn’t want to work there anymore.”
Many of the individuals who chose to comment on their experience with naturopathic medicine reported positive results. From individuals who reported that acupuncture helped slow macular degeneration, to others who have used it to avoid surgery to correct carpel tunnel, the reasons to pursue a variety of treatments are many and there are no doubt clear benefits to alternative medicine. The same individual who worked as an office manager stated, “Something I absolutely did see: People with chronic pain or muscle problems were able to get relief.”
I spoke with Providence area acupuncturist Elizabeth Collins about her experience with the profession. Collins worked as an EMT for more than three years before pursuing studies in acupuncture. As a pre-med student, she had a scholarly foundation in biomedicine and chemistry. She chose acupuncture based on not only her fascination with the science, but also to satisfy her desire to focus more on the health and wellness of her patients. She expressed frustration that acupuncture in particular is still regarded by many as a pseudoscience, when there are concrete studies showing the benefits and biomedical explanation for the practice. She currently practices on the East Side of Providence at Balance Acupuncture at 1 Richmond Square, as well as the Integrative Care Center in the Oncology Department at Women & Infants Hospital.
One thing many Rhode Islanders recognize concerning naturopathic medicine is the need for reliable information and explanation of services. Collins noted that while acupuncture has been a common treatment in China and many other areas for centuries, there is still little information available to the public in the US. With different CAM procedures becoming not only more available, but also affordable through some insurance plans and sliding scale services, the hope remains that accurate information regarding different treatments will become accessible.