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The booming field of alternative medicine goes under the microscope in Dallas

It has to be one of the oddest moments in the annals of modern medical diplomacy.

Standing over platters of cheese cubes and bowls of guacamole in the refined quarters of the faculty club at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Kern Wildenthal, the center's distinguished but stiff-necked president, looks for all the world like he is undergoing a root canal.

At this moment, Wildenthal is reluctantly making the acquaintance of Dr. Dashima Dovchin, a Dallas-based, Mongolian-trained practitioner of something called manual therapy. This includes, among other things, cupping, a procedure in which she presses a heated glass cup into a person's back to unlock energy blocks; and pulsing, in which she detects the health of internal organs by feeling different pulse points at the wrist.

The daughter of a wealthy Southwestern Medical Center benefactor, who is making the introduction, tells Wildenthal she believes Dovchin is the most gifted healer in Dallas.

"Um, do you have a license?" Wildenthal asks Dovchin, who replies that she is in the process of studying for the state licensing exam. After a few more awkward minutes, Wildenthal beats a hasty retreat from the reception, which is filled with all manner of alternative medical practitioners--naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists--as well as the occasional doctor of conventional medicine.

That the president of one of the most conservative and prestigious medical centers in the country is breaking bread with a woman who heals people with glassware is one indication of how far alternative medicine has come.

If Louise Gartner has her way, it is going to come a whole lot further.
And Louise Gartner usually gets her way.
A tiny, white-haired wisp of a woman with a resolve of steel, Gartner recently founded the Alternative Medicine Research Foundation of Texas. Its purpose is twofold: to fund well-controlled clinical studies to evaluate nontraditional therapies for prevention and treatment of common illnesses and to educate physicians and the public about this undeniably growing and controversial area of health care.

Funded with a generous seed grant by Gartner, the foundation boasts an impressive roster of board members, including Dr. Ron Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Parkland Memorial Hospital. It conducted its first educational program in September: a panel discussion with experts in alternative medicine held at Southwestern Medical Center, followed by one open to the public at Southern Methodist University. The foundation also brought in as a special guest speaker Dr. David Eisenberg, director of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research Center at Harvard Medical School, where he also is an assistant professor of medicine.

More than 1,000 people--nurses, doctors, and physicians' assistants--attended the conference at the medical center, for which they received credits in continuing medical education. Though a conservative, cautious group by nature, they were fairly receptive to information about a field that is often dismissed as quackery.

But dismissing the field, attendants learned, is shortsighted. According to a large survey Eisenberg conducted in the mid-1990s, more people in the preceding year had visited practitioners of alternative medical therapies (including acupuncturists, herbalists, and energy healers) than visited their primary care physician. Eisenberg's study unmasked, in the words of one of his colleagues, "a hidden mainstream." Moreover, more than 70 percent of the respondents did not tell their primary care physicians about their use of alternative treatments.

Numerous health maintenance organizations have caught onto the trend and now are offering their participants the option of seeing chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists as part of their medical plan.

Just how effective these treatments are is not known. But scientists are finally beginning to try to find out. To that end, the National Institutes of Health recently funded alternative medicine research projects at 10 medical centers around the country. In Houston, a study is being designed to investigate the effectiveness of alternative treatments on cancer. At Harvard, Eisenberg and his colleagues are studying the effectiveness of traditional therapies for lower-back pain versus that of treatments such as chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture.

"It's going to be a shoot-out at high noon," said Eisenberg, who has extensively studied Asian medicine and was a consultant to Bill Moyers on his Healing and the Mind PBS series.

How big a part a patient's belief in the treatment plays in its effectiveness is not known. But Eisenberg instructs physicians and research scientists not to dismiss the power of the placebo effect, an area that has been understudied itself. "Perhaps these patients' brains are wired in such a way that allows their beliefs to bring about biological changes," Eisenberg suggests.

Belief can go only so far in explaining why some treatments work. Eisenberg points to studies of successful acupuncture procedures done on animals as proof that something else besides blind faith is at play. Double-blind studies at Oxford show that homeopathy, minute dosages of natural medicines, may have some benefit in treating allergies.

William Craig, a Fort Worth physician who participated in the panel, became a true believer in acupuncture, he told the crowd, when it cured his wife's crippling migraine headaches, from which she suffered during the first 10 years of their marriage. Craig decided to study this Chinese pain-control method, which involves carefully placing needles along the body's nerve pathways. To improve upon the procedure, Craig began experimenting, using electrical currents attached to these needles. With funding from Fort Worth's Bass family, researchers at Southwestern compared Craig's invention with other, more conventional pain-reduction therapies on 65 post-surgical patients who suffered from chronic lower-back pain. Craig's method worked the best by far and got dramatic results, according to Dr. Paul White, a Southwestern anesthesiologist and research scientist who conducted the study.

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