East meets West: Local clinic offers integrative care

Mike Cherney

If aspirin can’t beat a headache, herbal treatment is always on the table. Or psychotherapy. Or yoga.

At Evanston Northwestern Healthcare’s Integrative Medicine Clinic, patients are offered a smorgasbord of unconventional, non-Western medical treatments. At a time when many integrative medicine centers have shut down, ENH’s unique approach of treating the person instead of the pathogen, combined with increased coverage for patients from insurance companies, has kept the 3-year-old ENH clinic busier than ever.

“If you have ever gotten sick, or had a diagnosis, it sucks taking medicine,” said Dr. Karen Koffler, director of the Integrative Medicine Clinic. “Maybe if people with high blood pressure learned to do Tai Chi, it would lower their blood pressure, reduce other problems and increase their enjoyment.”

While it offers many non-Western treatments, such as image, food and muscle therapy, meditation, nutrition counseling and spiritual exercises, the clinic does not totally abandon conventional medicine.

Integrative medicine combines treatments from the ancient and modern worlds by assessing and treating both the person and the symptoms of the disease. In this sense, a doctor of integrative medicine also considers psychology. It is very important to understand where patients are coming from and what other aspects of their lives could be affecting their illnesses, Koffler said.

“(Regular doctors) don’t get very involved in (patients’) background,” she said. “They don’t know what their relationships are like or what their nutrition is like. If you don’t understand all those basic things, you’re not really fixing the problem.”

And while indulging in holistic practices might seem like a folly in today’s era of prescription drugs and laser surgery, demand for unconventional medicine has been growing.

“The demand is going up all the time, and there are so many ways that people can utilize (integrative treatments),” said Jennifer Leimkuehler, chief operating officer of the American Association of Integrative Medicine. “I think some people just firmly believe that you shouldn’t take medicine, that there are other natural ways to prevent themselves from getting disease.”

Insurance companies seem to be jumping on the integrative bandwagon as well. While public interest in integrative medicine has been relatively high, insurance companies have refused to cover unorthodox medical treatments until recently, forcing many integrative clinics to lose patients.

“This culture is more inclined to only do things that insurance allows, and because this is a new field, it’s not well covered,” Koffler said. “But now many patients who come to me are typically reimbursed, and many insurance companies are now covering for acupuncture.”

Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese treatment, is one of the more popular practices at the clinic, according to Bonnie Lovdjieff, a nurse who works there. The treatment involves inserting small needles into the patient at certain points to aid the flow of vital energy, or “Qi,” through the body. Acupuncture is supposed to treat pain and a variety of illnesses.

“Deficiencies of energy create different conditions, such as pain,” Lovdjieff said. “It helps neuromuscular disorders. It helps people with high blood pressure and helps control nausea during chemotherapy.”

True to the spirit of combining Western and traditional medicine, the clinic helps to augment the care at other hospital departments and improve the services of the hospital as a whole, Koffler said. Half the patients Koffler sees are referrals from other physicians.

“I’ve seen diseases with a strong emotional component, and it’s good for surgeons to know that there are people concentrating on other aspects of their patients,” she said. “It helps to push the envelope in the kind of care that we are willing to provide.”