Friday, February 5, 1999

Medical system in
poor health, expert says

By Helen Altonn


America's medical system has had a chance to give people better health and it hasn't delivered, says an advocate of alternative and complementary medicine.

Except in acute circumstances, says Dr. Samuel D. Benjamin, "We've done a pretty lousy job: "No controlling pain. No access for poor people. No patient satisfaction. No real achievements in terms of longevity or quality of life.

"We've been racist and sexist and ... medicine has attempted to divorce itself from the human spirit, and I think that is unacceptable."

Benjamin, director of the Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of New York's Stonybrook School, will be among key speakers at "Healthier Communities Best Practices Forum" at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Wednesday through Friday.

Cultural healing practices used in Hawaii will be discussed and delegates will visit the Five Mountain Medical Community on the Big Island, which incorporates complementary medicine.

Vivian Ho, conference co-moderator and Queen's International Corp. president, said Hawaii is "unparalleled in terms of our cultural diversity and healthy living. We think much of that diversity is being actively integrated into our health care practices."

In a telephone interview, Benjamin applauded Hawaii: "You have shown an example to the rest of the United States and sensitivity that the rest of the health institutions need to have in recognizing traditions of populations they serve."

Nationally, however, he predicted "an extraordinary disaster looming" for the United States unless health-care management changes.

Among signs: 28 percent of New York City's people aren't insured and 75 percent of those are working, he said.

U.S. health-care costs are estimated to double by the year 2007 -- reaching $2.1 trillion, he said, adding that "scares the hell out of me."

Some people believe by the year 2015, when baby boomers reach Medicare age, health care potentially could absorb one-third of the gross national product, Benjamin said. "If that happened unchecked, it would destabilize the U.S. economy."

Health-care management up to now primarily has involved limiting accessibility when it should emphasize prevention, he said.

Benjamin said complementary, alternative, unconventional or holistic medicine -- whatever it may be called -- is forcing institutions to look at different approaches to health care.

"Instead of becoming a controller of medical services," he said, managed health care "needs to become a facilitator of health care."

Dr. Sherrel Hammar, interim dean of the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, said the Liaison Committee on Medical Education is stressing the need to expose students to complementary or alternative medicine.

Most medical schools at least are trying to introduce it, which the John A. Burns Medical School has been doing for several years, he said.

A four-year curriculum in complementary medicine now is being developed for most clinical units, he said.

The focus primarily has been on native Hawaiian medicine, but the school -- which has about 240 students and 260 residents in 15 residency programs -- is looking at integrating other forms of alternative medicine, Hammar said.

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