A 'third way' to cut healthcare costs

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With another presidential campaign in full swing, polls show that the ever-rising cost of healthcare is near the top of voters' worries. Yet the candidates will almost certainly trot out the two timeworn choices: cut benefits or raise taxes. It is time to try a new approach. Alternative medicine promises an innovative, inclusive, and fiscally responsible solution.

Scientists across the country are beginning to demonstrate that certain alternative therapies are both safe and effective. The therapies range from ancient remedies to modern techniques and include, significantly, healing through prayer. Some patients use alternative therapies to avoid the need for conventional treatment altogether. Reports in major medical journals show that some approaches may help patients manage stress and prevent the incidence or recurrence of disease. Other patients turn to alternative therapies in conjunction with conventional medicine, often to reduce unpleasant side effects such as those that come with chemotherapy.

The cost-saving implications of all this are potentially enormous. When heart patients take a $250 meditation class to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol, they also help stave off a $15,000 bypass procedure. Studies show massage therapy ($85 an hour) is the most effective alternative treatment for lower back pain. It also helps avoid surgery (average cost: $16,000), cuts medication, and reduces workers' compensation claims (billions of dollars annually). When surgeons invite a reiki practitioner ($100 a session) into a music-filled operating room, patients heal faster, allowing them to leave the hospital sooner. An extra day in the hospital costs at least $1,000.

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Are the ears of insurance companies pricking up?

The next step is more research to prove the anecdotal evidence. This next round of studies will compare the effectiveness and costs of alternative therapies with standard treatments using conventional medicine.

And doctors will have to learn how to cooperate with those involved in alternative therapies, just as they are now learning to share information and decision-making with patients themselves.

It is simple common sense that whenever people can prevent illness or promote healing, they will use fewer healthcare resources. America is looking for a way out of skyrocketing healthcare costs. People are voting with their feet and identifying alternative medicine as a possible alternative strategy.

Mary Ruggie teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She is author of 'Marginal to Mainstream: Alternative Medicine in America.'

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