COVER

HEALTHY OPTIONS

The poll finds strong support for alternative treatments

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 29 1997
COVER

HEALTHY OPTIONS

The poll finds strong support for alternative treatments

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 29 1997

HEALTHY OPTIONS

The poll finds strong support for alternative treatments

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

Cindy Kelley felt a little apprehensive as she approached the health spa one sunny Saturday in June. “I had walked by Balsam Creek so many times and I never had the courage to go in,” the market researcher recalls. But this

time, Kelley, 42, was determined to find out if aromatherapy could help ease her chronic sinusitis. “I was a little bit leery,” she says. “But I had tried everything else and I’d been on decongestants for years.” What followed was an hour-and-a-half consultation and treatment with Alan Hare, an aromatherapist at an alternative health-care centre in downtown Winnipeg. Hare assessed Kelley’s symptoms, created what she calls a “wonderful, uplifting” blend of oils—lavender, rosemary,

lemon and ylang-ylang (from a south Asian tree)—and applied them to her skin in a body massage. He also gave her a sample of the potion and instructed her to rub a few drops into her neck, back and upper chest twice a day. “After two or three weeks, I threw away the Dimetapp,” says Kelley. “I wasn’t nearly as congested.” This year’s Maclean’s/CBC News year-end survey reveals that, like Kelley, many Canadians are daring to experiment with an array

Gaining ground 47% of respondents say they are more receptive to the idea of seeking treatment from an atternative health-care professional than they were five years ago

of alternative health-care treatments, some of them dismissed not long ago as flaky, New Age hocus-pocus. A solid majority—57 per cent—of poll respondents report that they have consulted a chiropractor, massage therapist, acupuncturist, naturopath, homeopath, midwife or aromatherapist. The survey also finds that almost half47 per cent—have become more receptive to alternative health-care practices in the past five years, compared with just 21 per cent who

say they have lost faith. The trend cuts across all age-groups, with surprising consistency. Even the elderly, typically more conservative patients, are interested, with 41 per cent of respondents aged 65 and older reporting more openness to alternative therapies. “Attitudes definitely are changing,” says David Peterson, the Calgary-based president of the Canadian Chiropractic Association. Patients, and even some physicians, are more informed about the benefits of nontraditional

medicine, he says. ‘When I started 20 years ago, we were quacks,” adds Peterson. “Now, medical doctors are starting to train in spinal manipulation themselves.”

Canadians are clearly not abandoning modern medicine. The vast majority—85 per cent, according to the poll—still say they would turn to a physician first if they felt unwell. At the same time, an astounding 25 per cent say they would trust a herbal remedy more than a prescription from a medical doctor. “There is a contingent out there who are very suspicious of drugs,” says Toronto physician Zoltán Rona, author of The Joy of Health: A Doctor’s Guide to Nutrition and Alternative Medicine. Rona and others believe that concerns about the possible long-term side-effects of potent pharmaceuticals and invasive medical procedures are boosting the popularity of unconventional therapies.

The poll also suggests that, despite such opinion shifts, Canadians are still cautious, turning in the largest numbers to the more established forms of alternative medicine. While about 40 per cent of those surveyed had consulted a chiropractor and nearly 25 per cent had visited a massage therapist, barely 10 per cent had tried acupuncture, naturopathy or homeopathy. A mere three per cent had consulted a midwife or an aromatherapist.

Some alternative therapies are still a hard sell. “Aromatherapy is not a quick fix,” concedes Hare. “It’s gentle, subtle.” Nor, he adds, does it have the advantage of decades of lobbying. “Chiropractic is a professional body,” he notes. “So is massage therapy— we’re still trying to get to that level.” And some Canadians only turn to alternative treatments as a last resort. “In my practice, I don’t see many sore throats,” says Vancouver herbalist Brett Martin. “It’s usually cancers or people put through the conventional model and spat out the other end.”

But midwives are expecting to flourish in the coming months. “There is a big demand,” says Vicki Van Wagner, director of Ryerson Polytechnic University’s midwifery program in Toronto. “There are so few of us that we turn away five times as many women as we can take care of.” Currently, Ontario is the only province in which midwives are a legal, fully funded part of the health-care system. Although many provinces plan to follow suit, most government health insurance plans do not yet cover the cost of a midwife. But, considering that they must compete with the paid services of obstetricians and family physicians, says Wagner, “I’m delighted that three per cent of Canadians are being served by midwives.”

The poll reveals one particularly striking anomaly. Although residents of Atlantic Canada are slightly more receptive to alternative medicine than respondents in other regions, only 15 per cent had consulted a chiropractor, compared with a whopping 51 per cent in the Prairies, 48 per cent in British Columbia, 46 per cent in Ontario and 40 per cent in Quebec. “Unfortunately, it boils down to dollars and cents,” says Peterson. “Out west, we have coverage through provincial health plans, which makes our services more accessible, whereas in the Atlantic provinces they don’t.” Dr. William LaValley, a Chester, N.S., physician and outspoken advocate of alternative practices, says that only underscores the need to improve services in the area. “The Atlantic region has some of the worst health statistics, in cancer, heart disease and obesity,” says LaValley. ‘We also have the lowest socioeconomic status in the country.” LaValley notes, too, that the area has come through a period that was inhospitable towards doctors, like himself, who incorporate alternative medicine in their practice. “There has been a lot of intimidation in the past,” says LaValley. “Now, that would be considered politically incorrect.”

According to many alternative health-care practitioners, the poll reveals a glaring need for changes in the Canadian system. We are uncovering a wealth of support,” says LaValley, a member of Health Canada’s national advisory committee on complementary medicine. “It is increasing exponentially, but the system is ill and doesn’t take that into account.” As a result, he says, Canada already has a two-tier system, “one that discriminates against those without access to complementary care.” His prescription: “a greater openness” to alternative therapies through licensing authorities, insurance providers and medical schools. We want in,” adds Peterson. We are not saying that we can replace medicine or that we can cure everything, but we can offer care that is more cost effective and more efficient.” Just what the doctor ordered, many Canadians would say, for an overburdened, costconscious health-care system. □