Ripe fields for research

January 14, 1993

When New York Times columnist James Reston suffered an attack of appendicitis during a trip to Beijing in 1971, he found himself in surgery without anesthesia. With skilled acupuncturists controlling the pain, he found he didn't need the drugs. Mr. Reston subsequently wrote about the experience, bringing widespread attention to an ancient Asian form of medical care.

Acupuncture is relied on by millions of people around the world, but is often categorized in this country as "alternative" -- outside mainstream Western medical traditions. Yet in a health care system in which surgeons transplant baboon livers into humans but in which infants can die for lack of a few dollar's worth of rehydrating medication, there is room aplenty for new approaches.

Recognizing the need for fresh thinking -- and nudged along by congressional pressure -- the National Institutes of Health has established an Office of Alternative Medicine to fund research projects that will test the efficacy of methods of healing not commonly recognized by mainstream medicine in this country.

The first year's research allotment is $2 million, hardly a significant part of NIH's $10.3 billion budget. Even so, some researchers are voicing alarm that this represents a dangerous incursion into the domain of "real science."

Hogwash.

Part of the country's health care crisis stems from an emphasis on heroic medicine -- on dramatic feats like keeping extremely VTC premature infants alive, while children born healthy often don't get basic health care as they grow up. Such a skewed allocation of resources is attributable in part to a system that is overly rigid and too narrowly focused in its approach to healing and health.

If traditional Western medicine had all the answers, this country would do a better job in less heroic tasks like keeping patients comfortable in the face of chronic pain, in keeping them functional as long as possible during debilitating illnesses, in helping them cope with the stresses and strains of daily life in ways that minimize threats to health. There would also be more options to offer people suffering from AIDS, or from mysterious maladies like chronic fatigue syndrome -- options that may not "cure" a disease, but can vastly improve the quality of a patient's life. Best of all, many of those options would cost far less than the prescriptions and procedures that currently inflate health care costs.

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