Alternative medicine: grasping the art of healing

By Julie Fann

What is 'alternative' medicine?
   Does it mean using the right air freshener to reduce pain associated with arthritis? "Breathing light" to help conquer cancer?
   "I don't even like the term (alternative) because it implies that there is a standard medicine. I like the term integrative medicine because it encompasses the proven techniques of allopathic medicine (conventional medicine) and other forms of healing," said Dr. Wendy Kohatsu, Kingsport physician and author of the book Complementary and Alternative Medicine Secrets.
   Kohatsu was one of the first graduates of a fellowship program in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, a facility gaining national recognition for its study of alternative medicine. She received her medical degree from the University of California at Los Angeles and completed her residency at San Francisco General Hospital.
   "Alternative medicine gives us extra tools to facilitate our patient's healing in a way that's meaningful to them. For some people, it can be botanicals, for some it's relaxation techniques, for some it's prayer, or acupuncture, in addition to conventional drugs and surgery," said Kohatsu.
   Many who live in the Appalachian region practice alternative medicine. Some are ginseng hunters, or they rely on old-fashioned prayer, or old home remedies. Physicians who practice those techniques in addition to conventional medicine believe doing so "expands their repertoire".
   "I might pray with some of my patients, if they ask me to, if that's what helps them. It just makes sense from a medical standpoint to focus on what is helpful than what isn't," Kohatsu said.
   However, using alternative forms of medicine, such as herbal remedies, requires adequate training, and many doctors and medical students aren't trained in the effects of botanical drugs.
   As a result, Kohatsu, along with more than 50 physicians from across the country, authored a textbook to help physicians attain helpful insight about alternative forms of medicine and their effects.
   "It uses a question-and-answer format that makes the subject easier to learn and keeps the book a little more fun that a straight medical textbook," she said. "I had each writer imagine they were having a dinner conversation with someone who knows nothing about their field of expertise."
   "If doctors aren't knowledgeable, then they aren't able to help the patient. Science goes on. For instance, hormone replacement therapy may have side effects to consider, whereas, a safe, natural therapy might help the patient," Kohatsu said.
   Many doctors aren't aware of how herbal remedies, taken in addition to pharmaceuticals, might effect patients. Since over-the-counter herbal remedies are being used more and more, it is detrimental for doctors not to have necessary information that can help their patients.
   According to Kohatsu, more people are turning to physicians who practice integrative medicine due to an increased frustration with how healthcare is currently practiced in this country.
   "Doctors are asked to spend ten to 15 minutes helping a patient, which is basically asking us to practice band-aid medicine. I've gotten used to spending more time with my patients," said Kohatsu, who spends at least 20 minutes with each patient, and more, depending on circumstances.
   Kohatsu said her advise about herbal medicines is the same as it is for pharmaceuticals -- anything is good in small doses. "I respect herbs as much as pharmaceuticals. It depends on how you take it and how much."
   For instance, Kohatsu said peppermint can be very helpful for lower parts of the stomach in relieving spasms, but it can also cause esophageal problems and make acid reflux worse. "Typically not the amount in candy, but a medicinal dose," she said.
   Much of Kohatsu's practice, however, involves a lot of exercise and nutrition counseling.
   "Exercise helps everything from high blood pressure to heart disease to depression, with the side effect of making you thinner. I actually write this on prescription pads - walk for one half hour."
   Dr. Kohatsu practices medicine at Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center. She is also assistant professor of family medicine at East Tennessee State University.