Dr. Jeff Kane: Alternative atmosphere


About half of us use “alternative” or “complementary” treatments. That’s a whole lot of acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, Reiki, and a hundred other disciplines. In fact, it’s a colossal industry: Americans spend upward of $30 billion annually on alternatives.

The most common question asked about them is, “Do they work?” That deserves more than a yes or no. Work toward what? As my old forester friend advised when asked about any arboreal practice, “It depends on what you want.”

Do you want symptomatic relief or permanent cure? Well, cure, right? But it’s not so simple. Two-thirds of today’s healthcare visits are for chronic conditions. “Chronic” is a euphemism for the less palatable description, “incurable.” We’d cure your arthritis or lupus or dementia if we could, but we can’t, so you’ll have to live with it and we’ll treat the symptoms as we can. In this light, relief of symptoms — or even feeling better — is a big deal indeed.

Some critics claim that alternatives are actually placebos that offer only temporary success. Supporters respond, “Even if that were true, so what?” We all know — though there’s no way to objectively prove it — that even a minute’s liberation from a week of pain is heavenly.

I occasionally visit the world of alternatives myself, attracted mainly by its compelling music. Its music? My best psychiatry instructor advised, “Don’t listen to the words. Listen to the music.” In this case the music is the atmosphere the alternative practitioner provides.

Like answering the phone or reliably calling back, as opposed to, “Please hold; your call is important to us…”

Like hosting a waiting room with compelling art, welcoming furniture, thoughtful lighting, and the rare magazines that feature no celebrities…as opposed to a bleakly utilitarian space that would better suit a bus station.

Like looking at me, not at the computer, and asking questions about me, not just fishing for diagnostic clues.

Like not accepting insurance, therefore free from third parties’ demands for rushed appointments, massive documentation, and unnecessary personal data. Thus I pay cash, though far less than what I’d need to pay for an uninsured mainstream medical visit. And all of my payment goes to the practitioner without being siphoned off by those third parties.

Like custom-fitting my treatment to me — taking account of everything the practitioner knows about me, including my attitudes, relationships, habits and preferences.

Such practices contribute to an atmosphere in which I’m deeply recognized, which inevitably lifts my spirits and lubricates my healing. Of course, this style isn’t wholly limited to alternatives. Some medical offices have remained remarkably personable, resisting the healthcare industry’s drive to trim them of unprofitable humanitarian frills. Don’t settle for less.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in City

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