Eric Goldman discusses the progress being made by conventionally trained physicians to incorporate more integrative healthcare alternatives into their practices.

by Erik Goldman

It seems that the integration of health care options that so many of us have been working towards over the last two decades is finally becoming a reality.

Data from a recent survey of 2,000 primary care physicians conducted by Holistic Primary Care-News for Health & Healing and Signet Research, shows very encouraging signs that conventionally trained physicians – including many who identify as “mainstream” – really have begun to incorporate nutrition, stress management, and many other non-pharmaceutical alternatives into their practices. 

The 52-question survey, conducted last fall, sought to gather information about practitioners’ attitudes toward and experience with various aspects of holistic medicine, as well as their personal health behaviors, their practice models and their plans for the future. The study generated a 9% response rate, strong for any market research, and excellent for a survey of busy clinicians. Nearly 80% of respondents are conventionally trained MDs, the other 20+% being naturopaths, osteopaths, nurses, chiropractors and other health care professionals.

The really good news is that over 80% of the total cohort and 75% of the MDs are say they’re incorporating elements of holistic or “alternative” medicine into their practices. Nutrition counseling, stress management and functional medicine were the most popular modalities. Almost all – the “Conventionals” and the “Integrative/Holistic” clinicians alike – are routinely discussing dietary supplements and other natural products with patients, and half say they have these discussions several times per day.

When it comes to talking about health alternatives, it seems that patients and physicians are finally abolishing the unsaid “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules of the past!

Over three-quarters of respondents are recommending or “prescribing” some types of supplements to patients, and two-thirds agreed with the statement that, “Diseases and conditions can be treated or ameliorated with the use of dietary supplements and/or natural products.” That’s a major step forward—imagine how low those numbers would have been 10 years ago! It’s all the more remarkable since federal regulators prohibit supplement companies from making overt disease treatment claims.

Those findings corroborate supplement industry data suggesting that sales of supplements through physicians, nurses, chiropractors and other caregivers have been increased steadily at 5%-10% per year for the last decade. Practitioner supplement sales topped $2.1 billion in 2009.

Two-thirds of the survey respondents self-identified as “primarily conventional” in their practice style; a robust 29% identified as “integrative/mixed,” while 7% identified as fully “holistic.” Again, imagine what those numbers would have been a few years ago.

The high number of practitioners willing to recommend or dispense supplements to patients reflects their willingness to take supplements themselves. Nearly 90% of respondents are taking some sort of nutraceuticals or natural products, and over half prefer to buy organic foods. In general, practitioners are more comfortable with relatively well-established supplement categories like multivitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics.

The product categories the doctors are most comfortable recommending to their patients correlate closely with the ones they take for their own health and wellbeing.

What’s very clear is that the medical community has heard the public’s call for more emphasis on nutrition and prevention. Seventy-five percent of respondents say they want more education on these and other aspects of holistic care. It seems that the old walls between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine are finally breaking down.

At the same time, primary care practitioners face extreme economic challenges, and it is prompting many of them to reconsider how they run their practices.

Roughly half of the respondents are still in fully insurance-based practices; a slightly lower number are in mixed practices where some patients use insurance while others pay cash. Almost 10% say they’ve stepped off the insurance treadmill altogether.

Nearly 1 in 5 of the practitioners say they’re pondering making a major change in their practice models in next two years. Many are exploring “membership” or “concierge” practice models (ie, the MDVIP approach). Others are considering opening medical spas or fitness centers. An alarming number contemplate quitting medicine altogether or selling their practices to large hospital networks, and taking corporate jobs as physician-employees.

Many clinicians who plan to stay in the game are seeking new sources of revenue. Over 40% of our respondents said they are looking to incorporate products, services, or procedures that would generate new cash streams.

Though medicine – even the conventional mainstream kind – is not the guarantee of a comfortable, financially secure life that it was in decades past, it remains a creative and vital field. The survey indicates that many of today’s clinicians are becoming as health-conscious and eager for new solutions as the patients they serve. This is a very encouraging trend!

Get more information about Holistic Primary Care’s Practitioner Survey.