Alternative Medicine

As a high school teacher, it's Lilly Estella's job to open her students' minds to new ideas -- something she herself did when it was suggested she use ancient Chinese treatments for a medical problem. CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"I approached Eastern medicine with a skeptical eye, and I really didn't believe in it." Estella says. "But I became a believer very quickly."


In fact, acupuncture and Chinese herbs worked so well for her fibroids and endometriosis -- gynecological problems -- that she prefers them to more modern treatments. But her health insurer won't pay for alternative medicine.

"I have two physical ailments, both of which could be easily treated for a minimal amount of money with no invasive procedures," she explains. "Instead, my health care provider is offering me surgery."

But across the country, the tide is starting to turn. With 4 out of 10 Americans saying they'd be more likely to use alternative treatments than traditional Western medicine, and with a $27 billion market at stake, HMO's are getting in the game, doubling coverage in just the past four years.

"People are demanding it," says Alan Zwerner, Vice President of Healthnet in California. "It appears to meet their needs. There is a lot of evidence that it may decrease the overall cost of health care."

The trend toward coverage is due in part to the aging baby boom population, willing to experiment with simple, low cost treatments to help old problems. They are a potent economic force for managed care providers, eager to enroll new members and collect more premiums.

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"The very fact that insurance companies - managed care companies - are now willing to pay for those services gives them legitimacy," Zwerner says. "But it also subjects them to the light of day and to prove in the long run that they're safe and they work."

While some people welcome the money and recognition that comes with insurance coverage, David Lee thinks it's a bad mix. The executive director of one of the largest schools of Eastern medicine in the U.S., he's worried it will suffer under managed care.

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"The greatest danger for me is that people who don't understand the medicine will have greater control of it," Lee says. "If they say that acupuncturist need to only see a patient every seven minutes and they can treat only certain symptomsÂ…then I don't believe it allows the full power of Eastern medicine to help people."

Some of those in mainstream medicine also oppose managed care getting involved, though for other reasons.

"A part of alternative medicine is quackery," says Dr. John Renner, President of the Council on Rliable Health Information.

Dr. Renner, a retired family physician and author of a book on reliable health information, says most alternative treatments are untested and unproven and that managed care's interest in it has more to do with money than medicine.

"I think a lot of it is economics," Dr. Renner says. "There are extreme pressures on parts of the medical world and some of it appears to be partially solved, or potentially solved by this rush towards alternative medicine."

But there is science behind the move to embrace alternative medicine. Many herbal preparations are showing proven health benefits, and the National Institutes of Health recently endorsed the effectiveness of acupuncture.

For people like Estella, the change in health care coverage can't come fast enough.

"It's just so amazing to me that if it's so cost effective and if everyone benefits, where is the resistance," she says.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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