Among the many integrative medicine (IM) group practices and individual IM practitioners in the Washington, D.C. area, we are not aware of another IM practice that provides services to low-income patients free of charge — we believe we are the first!

Improve access to care

In recent years, the practice of integrative medicine has become more widespread and socially accepted. The number of academic integrative medicine centers has grown from eight in 1999, when the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine was created, to 57 today.

Over 40% of Americans use health care that incorporates non-conventional treatments, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health.  For people over the age of 50, the proportion of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) users is close to 50%.

Most CAM and integrative medicine services are not covered by health insurance companies, and are largely accessible only to those who can afford to pay out-of-pocket. We decided to change that.

The use of CAM is higher among whites, women, people with higher education and higher income. Only 25.5% of blacks and 23.7% of Hispanics used CAM in 2007, compared with 43.1% of whites. Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to have health insurance – 29% of Hispanics and 19% of blacks did not have health insurance in 2012 compared with 11% of whites.

Access to integrative medicine echoes broader disparities in access to healthcare. For instance, overall use of acupuncture, an effective tool in management of pain and other conditions, has increased in recent years, but is less common among racial/ethnic minorities. Community acupuncture is gaining in popularity, and it may increase access to health care for low-income populations.

Fight health disparities

In Washington, D.C., over 133,000 residents — nearly one-quarter of the population — are low income. Low-income and minority populations carry a larger burden of disease than their more affluent peers. African boy

Health disparities are well documented for the incidence and mortality from some cancers: African Americans continue to suffer the greatest burden for each of the most common types of cancer.  There is already a high level of use of integrative medicine among cancer survivors; at least 66% report using some form of integrative medicine. Access to integrative medicine can be critically important for bridging the gap between overcoming cancer and regaining health and wellness.

For example, Reiki can offer cancer patients opportunities to enhance their quality of life, minimize or reduce the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, and promote healing and recovery.

Washington, D.C. residents who are more likely to rate their health as fair or poor are: females; adults aged 65 years or older; African Americans; those who have less than a high school education; and individuals with a household income less than $15,000.

AIM practitioners provide services in some of the focus areas that were designated by the Department of Health and Human Services as the highest areas of disparities in health access and outcome: cancer screening and management, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health. AIM also works on improving health behaviors through integrative medicine modalities.

Address common public health problemsRachel

Health disparities are often seen in very common health conditions. Integrative medicine practitioners work with most common health problems, addressing risk factors which are priority public health issues, such as obesity, smoking, hypertension, and diabetes.

Seek more evidence

The growing use of integrative medicine modalities calls for more rigorous scientific research into its effectiveness, and for the need to provide training opportunities for future medical practitioners who will incorporate it into their practice.

(Illustration: Old man and his son, wayfaring-artist)