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Non-traditional medicine is complementary, not alternative, says alumnus who headed NIH office

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1999 - Summer


Although he once headed the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Joseph J. Jacobs, M.D. ’77, HS ’80, says he never liked the term. “It conjures up this mutually exclusive range of either/or decisions that patients have to make,” he told a crowd of about 60 people in the Beaumont Room at the School of Medicine in April.

He prefers to look at acupuncture, herbs, macrobiotics, massage, biofeedback, t’ai chi and other regimens as complements, rather than alternatives, to conventional medicine. Many patients see in alternative medicine a holistic approach they feel is lacking in traditional medicine, he said. “What is not so important is whether this group of alternative medicines have any efficacy,” he said, noting that they may offer hope to patients. “Patients trust us with their bodies and should not be afraid to trust us with their beliefs. We must let our patients know we are not only listening to them, but hearing them as well.”

During his talk on alternative medicine in April, part of the Humanities in Medicine lecture series, he described his own initiation into the world of alternate beliefs. Jacobs, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe who grew up in Brooklyn, spent his early years as a physician on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Those formative personal and professional experiences have made him particularly sensitive to his patients’ belief systems, which he says can be as important to healing as the latest medical technology. A physician colleague on an Apache reservation once described to him how a tubercular patient looked at his X-ray, then chanted and danced before allowing conventional treatment to begin. “When immigrants come into your clinic, what is their belief structure?” asked Jacobs, now medical director for the Medicaid and corrections systems in the state of Vermont. “How is it going to influence the way we deliver health care?”