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Integrator Columnist: Michael Levin on CAM Practitioners & Natural Products Companies PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Weeks   

Integrator Columnist: Michael Levin on CAM Practitioners & Natural Products Companies

Summary: There is no question that the holistic, naturopathic, Oriental, chiropractic and integrative medicine professions are in bed with pharmaceutical companies ... natural pharma, that is. The question is, how is this relationship best effected? Put differently, can these professions avoid the pitfalls of the MD-Big Pharma marriage and take advantage of each other's strengths? In this third column in an ongoing series on the topic begun by David Matteson, Integrator adviser Michael Levin - who has held executive positions for both Big Pharma and natural products firms - weighs in on the issue.
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Everyone involved with the development of the holistic, naturopathic, Oriental, integrative and chiropractic medicine professions will know that each has forged relationships with natural products companies.

natural products, pharma, collaboration with CAM practitioners
Columnist Michael Levin
Bluntly acknowledged, the business of these professions - communications, educational conferences as well as political initiatives such as licensing and federal action - are often funded by natural products companies. Company dollars arrive as payments for exhibits, advertising, sponsorships and donations. Strings are attached. There's karma here.

Then of course there is the income stream in clinical practices called "product sales."

In October, David Matteson, MPM, MURP, MS wrote a guest column on the
Shared Destiny of Integrative Medicine and the Natural Products IndustryIntegrator readers were invited into a dialogue. Adrian Langford, a managed care executive for 20 years, now running the breakthrough Medicaid integrative therapies pilot for Alternative Medicine Integration Group, responded quickly with a column he entitled: Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down on the Practitioner-Industry Alliance.

In this 3rd in the series, Integrator Michael Levin shares his perspective. Levin, who has contributed a series of Integrator columns on natural products issues, recently had his analysis of the FDA's current Good Manufacturing Practices for natural products featured in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician's Journal. Levin brings executive experience with Big Pharma, medical devices and natural products companies to his writing, and to his consulting firm, Health Business Strategies.

CAM Practitioners & Natural Products Companies – The View From Here

- Michael Levin, Health Business Strategies

Both David Matteson and Adrian Langford offered interesting perspectives on the relationship between “CAM practitioners” and the “natural products industry.” David observed the broad brush strokes of the painting of both as “flip sides of the same coin.” He argues for closer collaboration. In general, I agree.

or Collaboration?

"Having worked for decades
in the doctor/Pharma conspiracy
(“collaboration”?) and more
than a decade in the “integrative
medicine/natural products”
collaboration (“conspiracy”?),
I offer these comments ..."

-  Michael Levin

Adrian, initially (and rightly) fearful of becoming associated with hucksters on a natural products “wall of shame,” correctly recognizes that successful integration of the two fosters “credibility among those who pay for care.” He spoke to the need for quality leadership in the natural products industry in order to build that credibility. I totally agree.

Having worked for decades in the doctor/Pharma conspiracy (“collaboration”?) and more than a decade in the “integrative medicine/natural products” collaboration (“conspiracy”?), I offer these comments:

  • The Natural Products Industry    I spoke on David’s panel at the last Newport Summit (thanks again, David!) and asked this question of the audience: Is your company a consumer products company or a healthcare company? The answer to that question drives strategy. You see, we do not have one homogeneous “natural products industry.” It is fragmented and going through adolescence. The industry cannot fairly be painted in one broad brush stroke. Industry members who truly view themselves as “healthcare companies” listen to a “higher calling” than those who are “consumer products companies” (“take this product and be young again!”) or, worse, the huckster/charlatans in it for the fast buck (“cure your diabetes” says the infomercial - “buy two months of product and we’ll give you a third month FREE, but only IF you order NOW”). [In a recent editorial, Jon Benninger (Director of Business Development at Virgo Publishing) noted (I paraphrase): With these types of claims floating over the Internet, its no wonder this industry is viewed as being unregulated!

  • Statement of Purpose    Several commentators have noted the need for a common, unifying statement of purpose–one that can be easily understood and embraced by all stakeholders. Let me offer one. The purpose of integrative medicine is twofold: to improve health and reduce healthcare costs. Period.

  • Current Environment    US healthcare (the Western “disease treatment” model) is an unsustainable, economic train wreck. This chaos creates tremendous opportunity for practitioners, products, health systems, and technology companies alike.

  • How to Advance Integration (aka“How To Win”)    Inspire trust. Drip credibility. Harvest clinical and economic outcome data. Collaborate with payers and gatekeepers on the common cause of reducing healthcare costs while improving health. Always remember that the principle customer is the payer. Satisfy his or her needs and we all will win. Economically prove the wellness argument, and we’re sure to see a dramatic paradigm shift.

  • Terminology    Divisive terms breed contempt and fear. “Alternative medicine” continues to be used in some circles and is, in my view, an unfortunate term. While it may represent a well-intentioned effort to differentiate certain types of medical care from allopathic models, it creates a we/they mentality that invites confrontation (threat to established power?), rather than collaboration. From my experience, I view all interventions simply as “tools in the healthcare toolkit,” with some having more measurable and reproducible outcomes than others. Lest my friends and other skeptics accuse me of naïve idealism, let me quickly add that the touchstone of “who wins and who loses” in the race towards sustainable integration will, in the final analysis, be determined by two measures: clinical effectiveness outcomes and economic outcomes.

Closing Comment: During October and November, I spent three weeks tending to my ailing father-in-law, who was an in-patient at a highly respected trauma hospital. During those weeks, I had a lot of time to reflect upon the quality of his care, and upon the 30+ years of healthcare delivery I’ve witnessed working with practitioners and hospitals. Though the details of his case are too painfully raw for me to reveal (suffice it to say: the surgery was a success; the patient died), I would like to share this personal observation:

With a few exceptions, practitioners of integrative medicine are far more caring, sensitive, compassionate and focused on healing than are those in the allopathic model. Of course, this comes as no news to many of you, but the horrifyingly shocking contrast was, for me, a real wake-up call. And it was a reminder of how important our collective work is. Right-minded practitioners and products companies, sharing a common goal, offer meaningful solutions to our healthcare crisis.

At this time of year-end reflection, I pray we will work together more closely in the coming year to realize our vision. Happy Holidays to all!

: I am personally intrigued by the relative lack of interest readers have in this question, as I survey my tracking of page views.

  • Is it a dead topic?
  • Is it just too difficult to get out of the box?
  • Is the nature of the relationship considered a done deal? We've made our beds, now we're sleeping in them?
  • Do you think that the clinical and educational directions of natural medicine practitioners are not shaped in any way by natural pharma relationships?
  • Is this a holier than thou thing? No karma in (natural) pharma?
  • Is it not okay to talk about money?
  • Is there shame? Are you silent because this is in the shadow?
  • Or is the subject just plain boring?

My own bias remains that conscious formulation of appropriate strategy and relationship is always important between one's soul and one's financial base.

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for inclusion in a future Your Comments forum.

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