Parkland expanding education on alternative medicine

CHAMPAIGN – When Kay Elmer had breast cancer, she relied on more than traditional medicine to help her.

She also sought the help of an aromatherapist.

Elmer, 71, of Mahomet, said she knew the radiation treatments she needed would burn her skin. So she turned to a local aromatherapist to blend some essential oils she could use after treatments to spare her skin from the worst effects.

Those oils turned out to be a real blessing, Elmer said, because they kept her skin from turning black and helped it heal faster.

Aromatherapy "worked on me. I'm sure it would work on other people," she says. "You have to have the courage to go try something new."

Elmer, who has taken a couple of classes on whole health and essential oils, was already acquainted with the use of some alternative and complementary health services that fall outside the realm of mainstream medicine.

But – considering the wide array of these remedies and the money Americans are spending on them – Champaign's Parkland College thinks the public in general needs to be better informed.

"There is stuff that's good, and there is stuff that's junk," said Bobbi Scholze, director of health professions at Parkland.

Parkland College has launched a new whole health advisory board to focus on public education about alternative/holistic/complementary medicine practices.

The board will also strive for better communication between alternative and mainstream medical providers in the local area, and help determine whether there's sufficient local interest to establish a new community health degree program, Scholze said.

One board member, Champaign psychiatrist Dr. David Kopacz, sees a need for better public education about the many alternative health services that are available and how to use them.

A government study last year showed 38 percent of American adults and about 12 percent of children are using some form of alternative or complementary medicine. When that many people are using something, Kopacz said, "it's not fringe."

That same study, using 2007 data, showed Americans spent $33.9 billion in 12 months on complementary and alternative medicine services that weren't covered by insurance. Among the many services included in that category were herbal supplements, acupuncture, meditation, chiropractic care, massage, mediation and biofeedback.

Scholze said Parkland wants the public to get responsible information about these services and to encourage people to consult with their doctors – for safety's sake – when they use them.

For example, a patient taking a prescription medication needs to check for dangerous interactions with herbs and oils.

Elmer recalls showing her doctor the recipe for essential oils that Tuscola-based aromatherapist Sara Holmes proposed for her. The doctor rejected one of the oils in the mix, and Elmer returned to Holmes, who then replaced it with another oil that met the doctor's approval.

"That's a perfect example of how this works very well," Scholze said.

What's holistic?

Holmes, also a massage therapist and Parkland instructor serving on the whole health board, says holistic practitioners strive to treat the whole patient, not just an illness. They focus on helping the body heal itself and boosting its own immunity so, maybe, antibiotics and other drugs won't be needed.

"We spend a lot of time talking to them before we do anything," she said. "If they say, 'My arm hurts,' we talk to them about what is going on, maybe a lot of stress they're holding in their back or neck. You look at what is really at the heart of the issue, and sometimes, it has nothing to do with anything physical."

At the same time, Holmes says she never tries to replace a client's physician. For example, when a cancer patient comes to her for help, her role is to offer supportive services to the treatments they're undergoing.

"The majority of what we do is not to dissuade people from going to the doctor, which is one of the bad raps it gets," she said. "What it is, is really an integrative approach to health."

Holmes estimates there are 100 or more holistic/alternative/natural/complementary practitioners in the area, most of them in Champaign-Urbana.

And in some cases, traditional medicine and holistic health merge into one practice. Kopacz, for example, is board-certified in psychiatry and holistic medicine and has also studied energy healing. He provides conventional psychiatry with medications and psychotherapy, he said, but he can also counsel his patients about such things as nutrition and exercise.

Traditional vs. holistic

Kopacz said the medical field looks at a medical condition as a problem that needs to be fixed.

The holistic approach considers the patient's whole life, how the problem developed, the role of the problem in the patient's life, and helping the patient take charge of his or her life.

"In general, I think holistic medicine is good medicine," Kopacz said.

Call this untraditional medicine, he says, and you're really framing a debate about what's traditional.

"In a lot of ways, what we call conventional or traditional makes it seem like it's always been that way, but we've only practiced medicine this way for 50 for 60 years," he said.

What led to the current system? Two things, in Kopacz's opinion: More technology driving medical care and profit incentives leaving doctors little time to spend with their patients.

"Because we can do all these lab tests, we don't really need to talk to the patient any more," he said.

Kopacz said he hopes to see Parkland's whole health board raise community awareness about what whole health really means – "about being healthy in every sense of the word, not just the physical."

Upcoming lectures

Want to learn more about holistic medicine and complementary and alternative health practices in the local area? Parkland College will offer a brown bag wellness lecture series on the second Tuesday of the month from noon to 1 p.m., beginning in October.

Here's a rundown on the first three lectures:

Oct. 13: Constance Stark, Carle Clinic psychology department: animal-assisted therapy in the clinical setting.

Nov. 10: Dr. David Kopacz, psychiatrist: What is holistic medicine?

Dec. 8: Sara Holmes, aromatherapist and massage therapist: Stress relief with essential oils and massage.

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