Alternative Health: Trend or Anomaly?
By Staff News & Analysis - April 25, 2014

A Top Hospital Opens Up to Chinese Herbs as Medicines … Christina Lunka appeared nervous and excited as she sat in the Chinese herbal therapy center recently opened by the Cleveland Clinic. The 49-year-old had been to many doctors seeking help for ongoing issues that included joint pain and digestive problems. Now the Kirtland, Ohio, resident was hoping to find relief through herbal remedies. – Wall Street Journal

Dominant Social Theme: We ought to give these herbs a try, even if it's not scientific.

Free-Market Analysis: As we chart the results of the Internet Reformation, we make certain predictions. We have felt for a long time that elite dominant social themes would gradually shift under pressure – that in a sense the power elite would have to take an aggregate "step back" and perhaps we are beginning to see evidence of this.

Marijuana prohibition is suddenly eroding worldwide and global warming has retreated into something called Climate Change. "Organic" farming is suddenly popular and now we see that herbal medicines have made a beachhead at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic.

The advance of herbal medicine is certainly significant given the mechanistic state of Western medicine. The pharmaceutical model, which substitutes chemistry for herbology, is often propped up by dubious scientific evidence and a broad (and biased) regulatory structure that makes it difficult for even age-old alternative treatments to advance.

But now it looks as if things are changing. Here's more:

… The Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top hospitals, is a surprising venue for the dispensing of herbs, a practice that is well established in China and other Eastern countries but has yet to make inroads in the U.S. because of a lack of evidence proving their effectiveness.

The herbal clinic, which opened in January, has one herbalist who sees patients on Thursdays. Patients must be referred by a doctor and will be monitored to ensure that there are no drug-herbal interactions or other complications.

… The herbal clinic is part of the hospital's Center for Integrative Medicine, whose offerings also include acupunture, holistic psychotherapy and massage therapy. "Western medicine does acute care phenomenally…. But we're still struggling a bit with our chronic-care patients and this fills in that gap and can be used concurrently," says Melissa Young, an integrative medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic.

While acupuncture programs have sprouted across the U.S., there are only a handful of herbal clinics. Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University and NorthShore University HealthSystem, affiliated with the University of Chicago, both include herbal medicine among their offerings.

"I'm getting more and more physician referrals [for herbal treatments], which to me is a sign of greater acceptance," says Leslie Mendoza Temple, medical director at NorthShore's Integrative Medicine Program. "When I first started here we were pounding on doors to prove we're not crazy and we're legitimate and safe."

Referrals come from neurology, oncology, gastroenterology and rheumatology, among other departments, she says. Jamie Starkey, lead acupuncturist at the Cleveland Clinic who got the herbal clinic started, says there is little scientific research outside Asia on using herbs as medicine.

… Maged Rizk, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic … says Chinese herbal medicine is still being critically evaluated. "In the past it wasn't even considered seriously," Dr. Rizk says. "At this point there is a thinking, 'Some of the things we're doing now aren't very effective. Should we really be looking at alternatives a little more seriously?' I think the verdict is still out," he says.

The article delivers a positive message about herbs, though we have left out – in the above quote – certain negative elements presented in the story having to do with a lack of scientific rigor. In fact, the article quotes one medical specialist as saying that successful results when it comes to herbs are "quite thin."

This is actually ironic, as the pharmaceutical industry itself is built on herbal research. Big Pharma sends researchers to the Amazon mostly to find unknown herbs that may be efficacious for certain treatments. These herbs, if they prove promising, are then mimicked chemically so that they can be patented. It is impossible to patent a plant.

As pointed out above, the Western model is mechanistic whereas other, more ancient medical models are holistic, focusing on treating the entire body. Western medicine is derived from the Guild of Barbers and is focused on treating a specific health problem, often by the application of physical treatments. In fact, this led to an emphasis on treating symptoms rather than underlying causes.

It is what we call the Internet Reformation that is probably provoking increased interest in alternative treatments to those provided by Big Pharma. Homeopathy, herbal treatments and acupuncture are all increasingly in vogue even if resisted by established Western medical gatekeepers.

The arguments against such treatments are usually the same and have to do with the lack of positive outcomes derived from rigorous applications of double-blind testing.

In defense of non-Western treatments, however, one can surely point out that even double-blind testing is not always effective or even predictive. Plenty of pharmaceutical drugs have passed through double-blind testing only to be withdrawn from the market because of unwanted additional health impacts.

It will be interesting to see how alternative treatments fare in the West in the 21st century. Acupuncture is increasingly popular and even homeopathy – often blasted by the Western medical establishments – persists and is growing in popularity in various countries.

From an investment standpoint, non-traditional health treatments, organic farming and medicinal marijuana may all offer increased equity opportunities – both private and public – over time. Alternative farming techniques like alternative health approaches are being driven by Internet era exposure and it is not likely that interest in them, once stimulated, is going to subside.

After Thoughts

One may be tempted to think of the Cleveland Clinic's herbal focus as anomalous but for us is part of a much larger trend.