Shifting the Health Focus from Illness to Wellness


December 23, 1991|By TIM BAKER

Future historians will look back and note the remarkable medical technologies being developed today at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and the Johns Hopkins school of medicine in Baltimore. But I predict the history books will ultimately conclude that a more profound transformation of American health care is now under way at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia.

In the last ten years this institute has made this state a national center for the Western practice of the ancient art of Chinese medicine. In his 1906 treatise, Dr. William Osler, one of the legendary professors at Hopkins medical school, recommended acupuncture for lumbago. But American medicine ignored it until 1971. Then on a trip to China, James Reston had acupuncture treatments to relieve post-operative pain from an emergency appendectomy. When he wrote a front-page story about his experience in the New York Times, people began to pay attention.

Since then, acupuncture has grown rapidly. In 1975, only seven acupuncturists practiced in Maryland. Today 268 are registered by the state board of medical examiners. Since acupuncture is inexpensive and cost-effective, insurance now pays 68 percent of the cost of treatments for such problems as back pain, migraines, allergies, stress and other chronic ailments.

A growing number of Marylanders go for treatment -- ten thousand by my calculations. They include U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, retired Noxell CEO George L. Bunting Jr., First National's CEO Charles W. Cole, UMBC president Michael K. Hooker, Prudential Health Care president Barbara B. Hill, Westinghouse Electronic System president Jack Tymann, Rouse Company executive vice president R. Harwood Beville Jr., partners at Piper & Marbury, and, as you may have guessed by now, at least one local newspaper columnist.

In 1980, a group of acupuncturists trained in England founded the Tradition Acupuncture Institute. It has grown to become one of the leading centers of Chinese medicine in the Western world. Every year its rigorous three-year program graduates 25 new practitioners.

Lately, acupuncture has been on a roll. This fall Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report both ran cover stories about it, and a long article even appeared in Forbes. A British philanthropist has given a $1 million grant to the University of Maryland School of Medicine to integrate acupuncture and other alternative healing methods into mainstream medical practice.

Acupuncture rests on three related concepts. The Tao (pronounced ''dow'') refers to the path or pattern of birth, growth, fruition, death and new beginnings which flow in cycles through the oneness of life. These natural laws govern health and healing and operate on the levels of body, emotion, mind and spirit.

This approach sees health as a state of energetic balance based on a harmony of opposites, polarities and paradoxes referred to as ''Yin-yang.'' In this view, every reality contains the seeds of its own reversal. Thus a patient's dysfunctional symptoms are seen as signals of underlying patterns of distress and disease. They, therefore, open up opportunities to touch and heal those deeper currents.

In this system, the Ch'i (''chee'') energy constantly circulates through the body along energetic pathways or meridians which are related to the body's organs and physiological functions. The skilled application of needles to specific points along those meridians can regulate the flow of the ch'i energy and harmonize a patient's physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.

Acupuncture attempts to intervene at the energetic level to restore the flow of ch'i energy and establish balance and harmony before symptoms manifest as pathology. It turns an existing imbalance into a powerful source of re-vision, recovery and renewal.

Properly understood, this vision transforms patients' experiences of their own health. Symptoms are not necessarily seen as problems that must be fixed immediately. Instead, they become messengers bearing vital information from within. They whisper the body's inner secrets. Patients taught to listen learn to take personal responsibility for their own health and healing.

Thus acupuncture presents an enlightening perspective on this country's growing health-care crisis. While technology propels our medical costs ever upward, vast sums go into diagnoses and treatments of questionable effectiveness and value. Some expensive technologies do little to prolong the average life or improve the quality of health. Americans die younger, lose more rTC babies, and suffer higher rates of chronic and preventable disease than people in other developed countries, even though they all spend substantially less on health care than we do.

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