An urban community with a population of 67,000 and rising, New Westminster has an abysmally low number of family doctors accepting new patients. Recently, I felt like I had won the lottery when I managed to find the “holy grail” of a GP: younger than 40, female, and accepting new patients. During the search for Dr. Grail, I’d asked friends for referrals to their doctors, and discovered there’s a growing number of people who are turning to alternative therapies to manage their personal wellness and care.
Ease of access seems to be one reason why people are considering alternative therapies. One friend said she can see her naturopathic doctor with little notice. Another mentioned he didn’t need an appointment to get acupuncture treatment on his wrist and simply walked in during clinic hours. A colleague swears by registered massage therapists: “I can call one of a dozen qualified people within walking distance and find someone right away, and a good number of them will come to me.”
“People want to get to the root of their health concerns, as opposed to being given more medication and Band-Aid solutions,” says Dr. Allana Polo, Naturopathic Doctor (ND) and owner of Polo Health + Longevity in downtown New Westminster.
Doreen Hill, a registered acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner in Uptown, agrees. “I recognize that western medicine has limitations,” she says. “For me it’s all about helping people overcome their issues and regain their health and lifestyles.”
As the traditional healthcare system becomes backlogged, scarce, and frustrating to navigate, New Westers are taking charge of their own wellness. “I was tired of never feeling like I had any say in my own health, that I was never in control, and that I just had to live with whatever answers I got in the few minutes I was permitted at the walk-in clinic,” says one convert to naturopathic healthcare. “That’s no way to enjoy life. I finally feel well again.”
New Westminster is not only rife with naturopathic doctors, acupuncturists, registered massage therapists, practitioners of TCM and other alternate therapies, but it is also home to training facilities, including the West Coast College of Massage Therapy and the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine.
Peyvand Fralic, who works at the Boucher Institute for Naturopathic Medicine, says: “Some students enroll because at some point in their life either they or a family member have been helped by naturopathic medicine when conventional medicine could not help them.”
“Witnessing lasting lifestyle changes is extremely rewarding and motivating,” says Dr. Polo. Her clinic offers a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to preventative health care. Its practitioners (which include naturopathic doctors, medical doctors, nutritionists, and counsellors) work to “discover the root of illness and to treat the underlying cause of symptoms, and to empower patients to make lasting changes that support prevention.”
“We serve as primary health practitioners for many people. We can write prescriptions, send for lab work, and do PAP exams,” she continues.
There is no need for a referral from a medical doctor. Right now, patients who want to try alternative therapies can simply look up a practitioner online or find one through recommendations or reviews, book an appointment, and—boom!—they’re in. Often, alternative healthcare providers do not work alongside or share information with a patient’s GP (if they have one). This can result in an incomplete picture of a patient’s health and treatment, where care is fragmented between practitioners.
This interdisciplinary team-based care approach is one that Judy Darcy, New Westminster’s MLA and Opposition Spokesperson for Health, has said is lacking in our traditional healthcare system. She points out that a collaborative approach has been introduced in Ontario with good results, but acknowledges it would be a huge shift in how healthcare is structured in BC. Darcy recognizes there would be significant up-front costs to implement a new approach, but believes it would be a good long-term investment and especially beneficial to people who have complex healthcare needs such as elders or those with mental health issues.
Finally, cost to patients is an important part of the discussion. Alternative health practitioners are considered private clinics and generally operate on a fee-for-service model. The cost of the treatments is generally on the client to pay. For higher income patients, this is a fairly easy decision to make. For those with a lower income there are a few options. Extended health plans will generally cover some of all of the treatments and MSP will cover some services, such as acupuncture, for people who qualify for their low income plan.
Some practitioners operate on sliding scales which can vastly improve the affordability of alternative healthcare. Fiona Lampman, an acupuncturist who owns Gathered Roots in downtown New Westminster says, “The main idea behind offering a sliding scale is to make health services more affordable to more people, not just those who have extended health insurance. MSP with only pay a small amount per treatment; about a third to a quarter of the going rate most acupuncturists charge in the Greater Vancouver area. Even with a small subsidy, it is difficult for many to afford treatment. The hope is that those who have extended health will pay the mid to higher range while those with lower incomes can pay on the lower side of the sliding scale. All the while the acupuncturist is providing quality care and able to make a living doing what she is passionate about.”
While some practitioners are incorporating cost into their personal philosophies of treatment, it does come down to a need to pay for the services. Extended health benefits from an employer usually covers only a certain amount of treatments or a maximum dollar amount per visit. The low-income plan that MSP offers does require some hoop-jumping to qualify for, such as providing proof of income.
People in jobs without or with limited health benefits and who do not qualify as low-income are on the hook for fees. This bubble of patients in the middle means that many patients who may benefit from or are interested in trying alternative health therapies are out of luck. Alternative healthcare is not always an alternative option within everyone’s financial grasp. At least in New Westminster, there are lots of choices to investigate.