Medicine's culture wars

Alt-medicine prepares to enter mainstream Georgia politics

Herbalists, hypnotherapists and homeopaths in Georgia operate in a legal no-man's land.

They aren't licensed. Strictly speaking, in fact, they could be guilty of violating state law. And yet to them, and to the tens of millions of Americans each year who use the services of alternative medicine providers, what they offer is just as important as antibiotics or blood tests.

But now, the group that represents alternative medicine practitioners in Georgia has decided to make a serious legislative effort to help the state General Assembly catch up with its constituents. It's hired its first lobbyist and is working on a grassroots plan to organize support for a bill that would legitimize — in the eyes of the law — alternative medicine providers.

Currently, Georgia law is written so broadly it labels a criminal anyone who's not a doctor who claims to diagnose or treat disease or injuries, or does so much as suggest a form of treatment or relief in exchange for money, or even a gift. Technically, it's a misdemeanor.

Hence, the "atmosphere of fear," as the men and women who practice complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) put it. Indeed, according to the state Complementary Alternative Medical Association President Marge Roberts, some CAM practitioners have gotten cease and desist letters from Georgia's Medical Board.

To cure this problem, a bill, sponsored by State Planning and Community Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Nicholls, awaits the House's return in January.

The bill would allow CAM providers to practice without worry as long as they don't perform a list of prohibited acts or medical procedures, and they tell patients that they're not doctors and disclose their training. Patients would sign off.

"If people are willing to give disclaimers and disclosures ... why should it not be up to the individual?" Rogers asks. "It's a freedom issue."

Certainly, it would be a major break from the past.

"Every year for the last seven years, legislation has been introduced to minimize, eliminate or felonize CAM practitioners," claims hypnotherapist Cheryl Burney. "It doesn't have to be either/or. Me personally, if I have a broken bone or needed surgery, I'd certainly want a doctor. But I want to have access to a homeopath because that would be my choice for health care under most circumstances."

Since the advent of HMOs, getting 10 minutes alone with your doctor has become something like getting an audience with the pope. Then there's the maze of referrals to navigate, ever-rising co-pays and a many-headed monster to battle if any step in the maze is missed.

It's little wonder then that many Americans have turned to alternative or traditional therapies to cure what ails them or complement what the doctor prescribes — up from 33.8 percent of Americans in 1990 to 42.1 in 1997, according to numbers from the National Institutes of Health, though, a 1999 study put the number at nearly 30 percent.

(Chiropractic care and acupuncture, both of which are licensed in Georgia, are included under the rubric of alternative medicine.)

With patients and money at stake, it's not surprising that you get bills like the one that passed the Senate last year, which if interpreted strictly, could endanger massage therapists, by making it a felony to practice physical therapy without a license, a profession overseen by the Secretary of State's office.

Kathy Mackay, a Loganville massage therapist, explains it this way: "Physical therapy as a practice is fairly broad, and one of the things it talks about is assessing and treating pain. Well, you're a massage therapist and someone comes in and they tell you, 'I was working in the yard yesterday and I cut down five trees and I have pain in my shoulder.' One of the things the massage therapist is doing is assessing what they can do to help the muscular pain. It's not physical therapy, but in the broadest sense of the term, as its being defined, someone could say, 'Oh. They're practicing physical therapy.' Massage therapists can be targeted in that respect."

Burney hopes to get mainstream Georgians who use alternative medical treatments involved in the legislative process and support CAMA's bill.

"Unless we can get people to call their representatives and their senators and tell them, 'I want freedom of access'; unless they get out there and make those phone calls and write those letters, it's a done deal," she says. "We need the public to stand up and be counted."