From yoga and acupuncture to biofeedback and herbal treatments, forms of alternative medicine have been banned or ignored by the healthcare system.
These kinds of unconventional therapies are used outside the realm of traditional healthcare. They also are equated with holistic healthcare, which coordinates the health of the "whole" individual in mind, body and spirit.
But as pressures increase to eliminate high-cost healthcare, once-suspicious providers and insurers are beginning to emphasize these lower-priced alternatives and make them a legitimate part of the healthcare system.
"The lines between holistic, alternative and wellness programs are pretty fuzzy, but the medical model is maturing to include them all," said Larry Seidl, senior associate in ministry services at the Catholic Health Association. "We are smiling because the holistic movement is something that we've been arguing since the 1860s, and its roots go back centuries before that. We can't just treat part of the person anymore."
Money is talking and stereotypes are walking as the healthcare system narrows the gap between alternative therapies and conventional healthcare.
"Whose deductibles or copayments are going down?" Seidl said. "If that first $3,000 for my family's healthcare is out of my pocket, I'm certainly going to seek out an alternative."
Seidl is hearing from an increasing number of healthcare executives ready to test the alternative healthcare market. "I get at least one phone call from a hospital (executive) a week compared with a year ago when it was one call every month or two months," Seidl said.
They're attracted to astounding statistics from a landmark study, first reported in 1993, by David Eisenberg, M.D., an internist and director of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital.
Eisenberg's study showed Americans' out-of-pocket expenses for alternative therapies run more than $10 billion annually, a bite out of their wallets that isn't that far behind traditional hospital stays, at nearly $13 billion.
Patients also provide some 425 million visits to unconventional providers compared with 388 million visits made to primary-care physicians, the so-called gatekeepers of ever-popular managed-care plans.
"His research says, `Hey medicine, wake up' because people aren't using traditional healthcare as much," Seidl said. "Consumers are paying a lot and not seeing the benefits they have hoped for."
In an attempt to fill a void, healthcare systems and health plans are adding alternative components to their menus of care.
Chicago-based American Holistic Centers, a privately held firm, began working this year with hospitals, healthcare systems and physician groups to set up centers across the country. Although no hospital system-based programs are actually operational yet, AHC has had some 200 inquiries in the last year.
"We've created a replicable model for alternative (treatments)," said David Edelberg, M.D., president and chairman of AHC.
Freestanding centers already are on-line in Chicago and north suburban Evanston, Ill., and another half-dozen are committed to opening later this year in Southern California, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico and New York.
A typical holistic center would offer nutrition, herbal therapy, homeopathy, yoga and visualization techniques from any number of practitioners.
In upstate Montour Falls, N.Y., 50-bed Schuyler Hospital is weighing whether to add a freestanding holistic center.
"We're seriously considering a center and have undertaken a survey of the community," said Nancy Hall, vice president for quality care at Schuyler. "The Eisenberg study heightened our awareness. We definitely like the idea of physician-supervised alternative medicine."
The hospital's service area of nearly 20,000 people draws a wide