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Tara S. Kerpelman/MEDILL

Participants at the Integrate Chicago Conference 2009 were able to try out alternative therapies like acupuncture.

Healing minds and bodies at Chicago alternative medicine conference

by Tara S. Kerpelman
Jan 21, 2009


Tara S. Kerpelman/MEDILL

Art therapy was one of the integrative medicine techniques demonstrated at the Integrate Chicago Conference.

Walking into the middle of a lecture on acupuncture was like wandering into a sci-fi movie. The mood was eerie: relaxed, calm, yet animated. Around 25 participants chatted, bobbing their heads along with their body language, discussing various published studies on acupuncture.

It may not have seemed like anything out of the ordinary.

Except they all had needles sticking out of the center of their heads. It was a demonstration, after all.

Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, a family medicine physician at University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, ran the session on acupuncture and was one of 20 speakers at the Integrate Chicago Conference 2009 on Saturday that included 12 breakout sessions, a plenary and a keynote address. Conference participants were provided with a thorough introduction to different forms of alternative medicine from the medical perspective.

Throughout the conference, speakers promoted awareness and learning of alternative medicines to 145 medical students, practitioners, nurses and community members, stressing that many patients are now seeking these therapies because they can be very effective. “You’re integrating the mind and the spirit into the care of the body and the whole human being,” explained Michelfelder, who is a certified medical acupuncturist..

He said that although the mechanisms of some of the therapies are unknown, he has seen studies showing that they can be effective in certain cases. Michelfelder asked the audience to keep an open mind during their day of discovery of different types of integrative medicine. Just because it is not well understood, physicians should not discount it, he said.

“You may say to yourself, ‘It makes no sense to me, I’m not even going to recommend it to my patients because I don’t understand it,’” Michelfelder said. But as long as the patient believes it will work and the treatment is inexpensive, he said it’s worth a try.

“You can learn to do [acupuncture] yourself and then eventually you can practice it. We have about 10,000 physicians in the United States trained to do acupuncture but for some reason only about 8,000 are practicing it,” he said. Michelfelder has made it his job to understand the available evidence around integrative medicine and was eager to share his findings with the conference participants.

“This conference covers topics not covered in medical school,” said Tarak Trivedi, a first-year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “A conference like this is pretty important: As doctors we should have exposure to [integrative medicine] and know what it is.”

Integrate Chicago also included some hand-on sessions where participants could try alternative therapies like massage, acupuncture, and art and music therapy. Erin McNeely, one of the conference organizers and a second-year student from Loyola, went to an art therapy session where a counselor asked her to close her eyes then talked her through some relaxation techniques after which she picked up coloring pens and had fun drawing out her thoughts.

“The creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight,” according to the American Art Therapy Association.

McNeely was also able to test out acupuncture with a mini-session. She said she felt wonderful and relaxed afterwards. “I hate needles,” she said. “But they’re so small you don’t even feel them.”

The needles used in acupuncture are as thin as hairs, according to Cathy Dore, the acupuncturist from Horizon Hospice who was working on McNeely. Needles are very flexible with small coils at the top for easy grip so that the patient will only feel the energy the needles help release.

“I’m really excited this [conference] is bringing more awareness. There’s going to be a shift to integrative medicine and that’s what’s going to be best for the patient,” said Jia Wang, a first-year medical student at Rush Medical College. “I’m actually more interested in the holistic Chinese medicine approach than passing out western medication.”

Students like Wang, with a curiosity for, and interest in, alternative medicine, organized the conference to supplement what medical students in Chicago learn in their classes. Without integrating courses on alternative therapies into medical school curriculums, the students said they wouldn’t be able to understand their patients as well as they should.

This is especially important in a time when almost 40 percent of adults and more than 10 percent of children use some kind of complementary and alternative medicine, according to information from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey.

Other therapies were also highlighted at the conference’s sessions included homeopathy and herbal medicines. “The term integrative medicine is going to go away because all these things are going to be accepted in regular medicine,” Michelfelder said about the future of alternative therapies. “The patients are demanding it, our students and residents are demanding it. I think we’re already on that path.”