Filling the Gap: The Role of Alternative Practitioners in a Broken Health Care System

By Elizabete Gomes, LAc, RN, ACN


I have been asked many times what got me into alternative medicine. My answer is simple: I want to truly help and make a difference in people’s health. This is a challenging time to be an alternative health care provider, but also very important. Our contributions are needed and maybe essential; our services are filling a gap during this time when our health care system is broken and failing us all.

In the mid-nineties, I was a fully certified intensive care nurse, taking care of very sick patients, using state of the art medical technology and utilizing the latest in drug therapies. At that time, managed care was putting pressure on providers and there were changes coming down from upper management, the hospital needed to cut costs, improve efficiency, etc. The way I felt it in my work was my schedule became insane with long shifts and odd hours and my workload got very stressful. However, those were not the reasons I left. It was my disillusion with the medical model as a whole. I knew in my heart there were ways to prevent some of the conditions we treated in the ICU. I felt it was important to get on the other side of the spectrum and help people to prevent illness and avoid intensive care altogether. That’s when I chose to study Oriental Medicine to become an alternative practitioner and step out of the traditional medicine path. I felt I could no longer be part of that system.

Filling the Gap: The Role of Alternative Practitioners in a Broken Health Care System - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register MarkA Broken System

Our current health care system offers so much, and yet falls short in so many ways! If you are sick and go to a physician, they run tests and you get a diagnosis, if you are fortunate enough to have one. If your condition is serious enough to warrant surgery, you get the knife. If there is a pharmaceutical drug to mask your symptoms, you get drugs. Basically, physicians have only two options for you, surgery or drugs. If you don’t qualify for either, you are left to figure out on alternative options for yourself. It gets worse if they can’t come up with a diagnosis.

Some of the physicians I know are overwhelmed and stressed. They are working with a broken system and they have very limited options to offer their patients. One could argue that they could do something to change it. While I don’t know what it’s like to be in their position, I do know that most of the patients that come to see me are not getting the care they need, and that sometimes I’m able to help and make a huge difference.

A 22-year-old woman, let’s call her Jen, came to me complaining of severe gastro-intestinal problems manifesting with severe and chronic diarrhea several times a day, abdominal cramping, fatigue, problems concentrating, low motivation, physical weakness and lack of endurance. She had been sick for four years and had seen a total of 13 different physicians, with improvement in symptoms.

When I heard Jen’s story, I knew her case was complex, but I also new there might be something obvious that had been missed. Why couldn’t 13 highly educated, trained, smart, doctors help her? I didn’t have any quick answers, but I also felt strongly that I could help her. After working with her a few weeks, we discovered she had the symptoms associated with celiac disease and quite a few food allergies; all the doctors she saw never once considered her diet as part or the source of her symptoms.

The current medical system combines the drug industry, which is only concerned with profit, and physicians offering very little in the form of treatment options. This leaves us, the alternative medicine practitioners, to fill the gap. Our patients should get effective therapies, professional guidance and get well, not just manage crises or in some cases get more problems while being treated, as in the case below.

A patient, let’s call her Isla, was being treated for stage four breast cancer. During a course of chemotherapy, she started having gastro-intestinal problems, nausea and poor appetite. She was given medication for the nausea; then she started having heartburn and indigestion, so she was given a drug for that; then she started having diarrhea, so she was prescribed something else for that. When the last medication didn’t stop the diarrhea, another one was added. Nothing helped. She had diarrhea for three months. One day, while have a session with me, I raised the question of whether the diarrhea was a side effect of any of the medication she was taking. I recommended she call her doctor and discuss this possibility. Sure enough, she stopped taking everything, and the diarrhea stopped immediately.

The Gap

Where do Oriental Medicine practitioners fall in the world of medicine? We are filling a gap in a health care system that is failing to deliver effective care. Our services are not only needed, but are also essential with current broken medical system. Why are our services important? We listen, look for causes of illness, and offer a variety of effective solutions. We work with the person’s lifestyle, diet, and stresses. We consider their emotional and psychological state. We assess their readiness for changes, and we walk the healing journey with them. Not only was I able to identify the source of Jen’s symptom, I could use therapies such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, and supplements, as well as work with her nutrition and her lifestyle to help her with her symptoms.

Conventional medicine practitioners use a model that has lost the ability to see a person as a whole being. Specialty medicine made it worse; not only did it change the way medicine is practiced, but also the way patients are perceived. A sick person is no longer being seen as a person, they’re viewed as parts and merely the conduit of a disease to be controlled or dealt with in some fashion. If the person questions or disagrees with the doctor, they are labeled as a non-compliant and sometimes passed to another doctor.

My work with Jen quickly changed her life. Prior to coming to see me, the only recommended treatment was a lifetime of drug therapy with severe side effects that would mask her symptoms without addressing the cause. In Isla’s case, I was watching the drugs pile up one after another, and I had to question their role in her symptoms.

Conventional medicine, as mentioned earlier, has a lot of diagnostic tools, but very little to offer as solutions, unless one needs surgery or prescription drugs. Surgeries are sometimes necessary and effective. But as a general approach, they use prescription drugs focuses on masking symptoms and ignoring causes of diseases. Conventional medicine usually ignores basic things like diet, lifestyle, and emotions; it has its focus on crisis intervention and symptom management. It also neglects the most essential needs of a person, such as being treated with warmth and dignity.

The practice of improving quality of life, addressing symptoms, and preventing illness should be part of every doctor, conventional or alternative, yet here we are… labeled as “alternative,” as less than worthy of respect! What really matters is where we go from here. We continue our work, making a difference and most of all advocating so that patients get the help they need.


  1. Zalk, Joni Renee (May 2015). The Challenges to Integrate Eastern with Western Medicine. Acupuncture Today, May 2015, Vol. 16, Issue 05
  2. Bivins, Roberta (2007), Alternative Medicine? A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199218875
  3. Richard M. Nixon (December 29, 1973). “Statement on Signing the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973”. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley: The American Presidency Project.
  4. Starr, Paul (1982). The Social Transformation of American Medicine. Basic Books. pp. 514 pages.