New UF Health program blends holistic therapies and modern medicine

Acupuncture, meditation, massage — practices once considered “alternatives” to conventional medicine — are now becoming mainstream in hospitals and medical schools nationwide, and University of Florida Health’s Integrative Medicine Program is leading the way by expanding its services for patients.

As research continues to validate many of these ancient practices as effective treatments for chronic pain, nausea and stress, they’ve earned a new name that represents this unique partnership of conventional and holistic treatments: integrative medicine. This summer marks the one-year anniversary of the integrative medicine program at UF Health, led by the first fellowship-trained integrative medicine physician in Gainesville, Irene Estores, M.D. The program provides patients and staff with services such as guided imagery, medical acupuncture and yoga.

“Integrative medicine addresses the needs of the whole person — mind, body, spirit — in the context of community,” said Estores, the program’s medical director. “We’re coming back to our roots and honoring what was effective in other healing traditions and using that to be able to be more effective in caring for our patients.”

In July, the Integrative Medicine Program began offering services for patients seeking treatment at UF Health Shands Hospital and UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital. Consultation and referral services for outpatients soon followed, with clinic locations at both UF Health Internal Medicine – ­Tower Hill and UF Health Internal Medicine – Medical Plaza, as well as UF Health Hematology/Oncology ­- Davis Cancer Pavilion and at UF Health Integrative Medicine ­- Executive Health.

“We have a community in Gainesville that really supports these kinds of practices,” said Tina Mullen, director of the Integrative Medicine Program and UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine. “As a major health provider in this community, we can provide these types of therapies in unison with very high-tech therapies. This is the thing that truly makes this program unique.”

The Integrative Medicine Program is also unique in that it’s an outgrowth of UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, one of the largest arts in health care programs in the nation, Mullen said. After years of providing services such as massage and yoga to staff but not having the resources or medical expertise to provide these services to patients, Arts in Medicine received several key donations that helped establish the program. UF Health leadership selected Estores, a fellow of the University of Arizona’s nationally recognized integrative medicine center, to lead integrative medicine practices at UF.

In addition to Estores, who also serves a medical acupuncture practitioner, the team includes two yoga practitioners, a martial arts practitioner/massage therapist, a mindfulness practitioner, a dance/movement therapist, a holistic nutritionist/massage therapist, two artists-in-residence and a nurse coordinator.

Doctors throughout the hospital system can now write orders for inpatients to receive an integrative medicine assessment or services, including massage, meditation/relaxation, beside or chair yoga and bedside martial arts during their stay.

During an assessment, patients receive a physical exam, identify problem areas and learn about integrative medicine services, said Lauren Arce, M.S.N., R.N., the nurse coordinator for the program.

“Building that rapport with patients, being able to introduce them to these practices, adding some humanity back into the system is a gift,” Arce said.

Another addition to the program is the ability to accept referrals for anyone in the community wishing to receive a consultation or medical acupuncture. The program also offers group classes to patients, patients¹ family and staff interested in practicing yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and mindful-based stress reduction.

A yoga practitioner who is certified to work with oncology patients, Tammy Bernard, M.Ed., said it’s exciting to see research coming out that substantiates the efficacy of these practices. For example, the National Institutes of Health reports that relaxation techniques such as deep breathing may be effective as part of an overall treatment for anxiety, depression and some types of pain.

“Connecting with the breath is a very basic technique that can, in turn, support a reduction of various stress hormones,” Bernard said. “It empowers patients to feel that they have tools and resources, so that they can actively participate in reducing suffering and stress when the symptoms from treatment are challenging.”

One of Estores’ main goals as medical director of Integrative Medicine, besides making sure their practices are safe, ethical and relevant to the needs of patients, is ensuring the techniques used in the center are research-based, she said.

NIH-supported studies show that her own specialty, medical acupuncture, may be an effective treatment for conditions such as migraines, chronic pain, osteoarthritis and nausea caused by chemotherapy or pregnancy.

Many insurance companies cover acupuncture for these conditions and offer limited coverage for other integrative medicine services such as massage, Estores said. As part of the expansion of the program, UF’s own insurance product, GatorCare, now covers selected Integrative Medicine Program services as well.

Estores said that in the fall, there are plans to add a holistic nutrition and integrative weight management program. A practitioner with training in these areas is developing a program that focuses on mindful eating and health literacy.

“This is an academic institution that provides us opportunities for research and collaboration between scientists, researchers and clinicians,” Estores said. “This is the fertile ground for growth and the formation of a program that is excellent, caring and will be a pioneer in our region.”

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