More Hospitals Offering Alternative Therapies—Are You?

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, September 17, 2008

A new survey this month by American Hospital Association subsidiary Health Forum shows that a growing number of hospitals are offering complementary and alternative medical services, or CAM.

Is your hospital part of this trend?

I can hear the skeptics howling already: "We can barely keep the lights on! How can we justify some New Age, touchy-feely mysticism?" Hold on! Hold on! Kick off your Birkenstocks, step into my chant circle, center your Qi, light a relaxation candle, groove on my Yanni CD, and let me speak these truths.

The Health Forum found that 37% of the 748 hospitals that responded to its survey offered one or more CAM therapies, up from 26.5% in 2005. CAM includes acupuncture, music therapy, pet therapy, massage therapy, herbal medicines and other treatments that don't fall under the realm of traditional medical practice in the United States.

True, more than 70% of the hospitals offering CAM are in urban areas. Obviously, that's because the larger populations can better support alternative medicine practitioners, and because many CAM schools are located in cities. Health Forum archly notes that rural America is already underserved by traditional medicine, so it is "not surprising" that it is also underserved by CAM.

But rural hospitals that offer CAM swear by it. "We've been very successful for been going on for almost a decade," says Todd Linden, CEO of the 49-bed Grinnell Regional Medical Center in Grinnell, IA, pop. 9,205. "We started out rather modestly with massage, music therapy, and pet therapy with our hospice patients but started to expand as our medical staff became more comfortable with the opportunities to add some integrated healthcare to traditional medicine."

Grinnell now has four massage therapists, two acupuncturists, a chiropractor, and a hypnotherapist on its integrated health staff. The hospital also offers music and pet therapy among its CAM programs, which are expanding to include more inpatient therapies.

Linden recommends that hospitals opening a CAM program start with massage therapy, and expand from there. "Setting up a massage program is just finding a licensed massage therapist who has an interest and putting a couple rooms together and a massage table. It can be done easily," he says.

Volunteers also play a big role. Find people in the community who are interested in training for pet or music therapy, for example. "It's a matter of connecting two dots - people's talents with our needs. You start with doing an inventory of who is interested," he says. "Maybe you've got clinicians who have healing touch credentials or have an interest in aroma therapy or pet therapy or the more spiritual sides of integrated health."

Getting the medical staff on your side is also critical. GRMC gave its doctors certificates for free massages to demonstrate the effectiveness of massage therapy. "Many gave them to their spouses but it opened a lot of eyes to the fact that a good therapeutic massage has a lot of stress management and relaxation benefit to it," he says.

Linden says any rural system can set up a modest, outpatient CAM program with a minimal financial investment and grow the program from there. The Health Forum survey found that 86% of hospitals offering CAM reported start-up costs of $200,000 or less! Keep in mind, the Health Forum says alternative therapies, services and medicines constitute a $36 billion to $47 billion annual industry, with the vast majority of that money coming directly from consumers and patients, because most health plans don't cover CAM.

Linden says GRMC's integrated medicine program makes money and covers its costs, but that's almost a secondary consideration. "What it really does is largely impact our ability to expand our optimal healing environment," he says. "That helps with length of stay and patient and staff satisfaction, which improves retention and recruiting. It's part of a bigger picture."

John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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