Proving How Integrative Medicine Promotes Healing

“Integrative medicine gives people additional options." - Shelley Adler, PhD, Director, Osher Center

Can we treat the crippling pain of cancer without addictive opioids? Or address the emotional turmoil of attention-deficit disorder without prescribing stimulants? 

These are the kinds of questions researchers are asking at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, where experts explore the power of approaches like mindfulness, yoga, and acupuncture to treat afflictions that plague our overstressed lives. The center’s investigators, clinicians, and educators apply rigorous scientific methods to learn why and how these holistic, non-pharmacologic approaches work in treating conditions that often defy conventional therapies.  

Maria Chao, DrPH, MPA, is conducting a clinical trial of the effectiveness of acupuncture and pain counseling in reducing medication dosage and duration in hospitalized cancer patients. Sanford Newmark, MD, author of ADHD Without Drugs, combines conventional medicine with nutrition and behavior management to treat autism and ADHD in children. Helen Weng, PhD, uses functional-MRI scans in diverse populations to quantify the brain physiology of mindfulness and explain how meditation helps control chronic pain and anxiety.  

“Integrative medicine gives people additional options,” says Osher Center director Shelley Adler, PhD. She defines the approach as patient-centered, wellness-focused, and evidence-based. “These therapies are not a replacement for biomedicine but a complement to it. Our clinicians are always asking, ‘What is the best we can do for this patient? Who else do we know who could contribute?’”  

Established in 1998 with support from The Bernard Osher Foundation, the Osher Center put UCSF on the map, both nationally and internationally, in integrative medicine clinical care, education, and research. Early doubts about “alternative” approaches have dissipated, Adler says, amid mounting scientific evidence and increasing patient referrals and visits, which have grown from just 32 in 2002 to more than 10,000 each year. Patients come from within and outside UCSF for nutrition consultations, psychotherapy, massage, acupuncture, and ayurveda – a system of medicine with historical roots in India – for a host of ills from cancer and cardiovascular disorders to insomnia, menopausal symptoms, and post-traumatic stress. 

Adler’s vision is as expansive as it is integrative. Her team is passionate about making integrative medicine accessible to diverse and underserved populations. She is also piloting a number of specialty integrative practices embedded within UCSF’s hospitals and cancer clinics to give patients easier access to their treatments. 

“It’s strange to be working toward your own obsolescence,” she says, “but wouldn’t it be great if integrative medicine were fully integrated into the health care system?” 

In 2018, UCSF received a foundation endowment to host the Coordinating Center of the Osher Collaborative, uniting under one umbrella all seven Osher Centers – at UCSF, Harvard University, the Karolinska Institute, Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, University of Miami, and University of Washington – to coordinate and amplify their work. 


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