Q&A With Dr. William Huff
By Virginia Smyth
William Huff, MD, talks about bridging traditional and complementary medicine.
You're the medical director of Alternative Services at Group Health. What types of care fall under this umbrella?
It includes chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, and naturopathy. All of the providers of these types of care are licensed by the state. These practices are often referred to as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Can Group Health members visit providers of these services?
Yes, and many health plans also include some of these services as a covered benefit. Members should check their coverage before seeking services out-of-pocket. Except for massage, which requires a provider's order, patients can usually self-refer when covered. Group Health has contracted providers in all four specialties who can be found in the Provider and Facility Directory or by calling Customer Service toll-free at 1-888-901-4636.
When are CAM treatments most effective?
For some conditions — chronic back pain is one example — traditional medical treatments haven't been very effective. And they can be expensive or have unpleasant side effects. In such cases, other therapies may be helpful. With any treatment, it's a good idea to discuss the risks and benefits with your provider. With CAM therapies, the risk and potential side effects are often very low. And for some conditions, including chronic back pain, research is showing some benefits.
When did your interest in CAM begin?
Since my early 20s, I've had an interest in how complementary medicine can work with Western medicine to maximize our health, well-being, and recovery from illness. One of my goals when I went to medical school was to form bridges between complementary and traditional medicine.
How are we doing in creating that bridge?
We're making progress by beginning to lay a foundation for integrative medicine, which I think is the ideal state. One example of integrative care is in the area of cancer prevention and treatment. Some naturopaths have added specialty training in naturopathic oncology and are increasingly working with oncologists and nursing staff to lessen the side effects of chemotherapy, support healing, and prevent recurrence with diet and supplements, an exercise regimen, and mind-body therapies. And the providers are communicating with each other to coordinate care.
What's happening with CAM and research?
More and more research, including studies by the Group Health Research Institute, is trying to identify which practices provide therapeutic benefits. For instance, studies at the Institute have found that yoga and acupuncture help relieve lower back pain. We strive to use as much evidence as we can in choosing treatments that are effective and are part of best practices.
Is there anything about CAM that worries you?
A lot of treatments are promoted on the Internet and elsewhere that aren't backed up by solid evidence supporting their claims or effectiveness. So it's important that the buyer beware. The more you know, the better choices you'll make.