Alternative medicine, once dismissed as quackery by most healthcare professionals, is now almost impossible to ignore.
One in three Americans has used some form of alternative medicine, also known as complementary medicine. Some estimates say Americans spent as much as $25 billion last year on acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, chiropractic care, Chinese herbal medicine, meditation, and other alternative therapies.
Some therapies are gaining credibility as they undergo scrutiny by academic medical centers such as those operated by Stanford University, the University of Texas and Columbia University. Nearly half the nation's 125 medical schools offer courses on alternative medicine, a sharp jump from about 15 five years ago.
Alternative medicine also may offer applications that will help doctors and health systems forge closer ties and gain market advantages, say Lisa Rolfe and Karen Hohenstein of the Tiber Group, a Chicago-based management consulting firm that focuses exclusively on the healthcare industry.
Hohenstein got involved in the area because of a personal interest "before it became mainstream." Now, though, she says, "there's rarely a client" that doesn't have some interest in developing a strategy involving alternative medicine.
Although primarily a cash business rather than a covered benefit, alternative medicine is gaining some coverage by health plans and new interest on Wall Street. And that interest is percolating down to many hospitals, health systems and even medical groups looking for a way to distinguish themselves from the competition.
Rolfe and Hohenstein will look at the evolution of alternative medicine in an ACHE session titled "Integrating Alternative Medicine into the Health System," to be presented at 10: 30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9.
Rolfe is a vice president and founding partner of the Tiber Group and co-author of Making the Physician Network Work: Leadership, Design and Incentives (American Hospital Publishing, 1995). Hohenstein, who heads the Tiber Group's alternative medicine consulting operation, joined the firm in 1995 after an earlier stint at Andersen Consulting.
During their presentation, Rolfe and Hohenstein plan to examine the scope, dynamics and implications of the explosion of interest in alternative medicine. But the crucial next step, they say, is to use it as a physician-integration strategy and to help differentiate health systems.
"Given the level of market interest, integrating alternative medicine into the health system can provide a distinct advantage," Hohenstein says.