Integrative medical centers are intended to look, smell and feel radically different from traditional hospitals.
Often designed using feng shui, the Chinese art of placement, to harmonize the flow of energy, many offices incorporate plants, natural light, wood floors, aromatherapy, tea, soothing music and, in some cases, non-toxic building materials.
A first visit is lengthy and intended to assess the state of the mind, body and spirit of a person, not just the physical ailment. Integrative medicine believes the body has an innate ability to heal itself with as little intervention as possible.
"Every integrative physician will say that just giving a person space and time to tell their story and having a doctor who won't laugh and will listen is vital to the healing process," said James Nicolai, medical director for the Franciscan Center for Integrative Health in Indianapolis.
Although conventional medicine shines during a crisis or problems with vital organs, integrative medicine targets life's chronic maladies, including allergies, anxiety, insomnia and gastrointestinal disorders.
"About 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care doctors are for a stress-related disease," Nicolai said. "Not just ulcers, headaches and migraines but also insomnia, panic attacks, depression, anxiety or just feeling discontent. So many people say, `I feel off.'"
Dana Ryan, 40, had felt "off" for about a year, suffering from anxiety attacks, heart palpitations and muscle twitches before she found Nicolai. When X-rays and bloodwork showed nothing and the cardiologist found her heart in good condition, Nicolai gave her breathing techniques and sent her to an acupuncturist. He also gave her a guided-imagery technique to practice at home and a book that illustrated the physical effect of stress on the heart.
"I noticed a difference within two weeks," said Ryan, a consultant with the auto industry in Indianapolis. "I really liked that he was looking into all aspects of my life. It just made a whole lot more sense."
Patients suffering from chronic or acute pain resulting from surgery, cancer, fibromyalgia, headache, sinusitis or arthritis often turn to integrative medicine.
Even emotional issues such as depression and respiratory disorders such as asthma can be addressed with integrative medicine.
Most centers are not high volume, and it can sometimes take weeks to get an appointment. Insurance generally doesn't cover the care. But for those who aren't having luck using traditional routes, integrative medicine is an alternative.
"With conventional medicine, if you don't fit into an easily treatable situation, doctors get frustrated," said Karen Koffler, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at Evanston (Ill.) Northwestern Healthcare.
"If you don't respond to chemotherapy, we say,
They failed chemotherapy,' rather thanThe chemo failed them.' That kind of mentality is woven into (conventional) medicine. With integrative medicine, we believe that's inappropriate."
A typical staff will have a conventionally trained medical doctor, like Koffler, working with experts from a host of complementary fields, including massage therapy, nutrition, chiropractic, acupuncture, herbalism and meditation.
Some centers incorporate fitness classes or healing movement forms, such as yoga, qigong, tai chi and craniosacral therapy.
After the first visit, the doctors and complementary medicine practitioners meet to discuss patient care. The team then creates a customized treatment plan, which can include lifestyle changes and preventive self-care.
At Evanston, Koffler and six health practitioners, including a mind-body therapist, a nutritionist and a Chinese medicine expert, also meet at least once a month to discuss the more difficult cases.
Evanston's Integrative Medicine Center initially treated cancer patients on an outpatient basis. The program was so successful, Koffler said, that it's now developing inpatient services and treats everything from infertility to major illnesses that are exacerbated by stress.
Crohn's disease, for example, gets worse with stress. But teaching people how to relax, whether by using breathwork or biofeedback, can help, said Koffler, one of the first four physicians in the United States to train under Andrew Weil at the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Arizona.
"All of it relaxes the physiology and gets people in a calmer state," she said. "In that state, the gut motility is calmer, the vascular tree dilates, there's better blood flow and the heart rate lowers."
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.