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Academia and the Profession |

Varieties of Healing. 1: Medical Pluralism in the United States

Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD; and David M. Eisenberg, MD
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From Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.


Acknowledgments: The authors thank Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, for valuable criticism; Robb Scholten and Maria Van Rompay for research assistance; and June Cobb and Marcia Rich for editorial suggestions. They also thank the Seminar on Effective and Affordable Health Care at Harvard University for allowing a presentation of an earlier version of this paper.

Grant Support: In part by education grants from the National Institutes of Health (U24 AR43441), the John E. Fetzer Institute, the Waletzky Charitable Trust, the Friends of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and American Specialty Health Plan.

Requests for Single Reprints: Ted J. Kaptchuk, OMD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Avenue, W/K-400, Boston, MA 02215.

Current Author Addresses: Drs. Kaptchuk and Eisenberg: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Avenue, W/K-400, Boston, MA 02215.


Ann Intern Med. 2001;135(3):189-195. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-135-3-200108070-00011
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Medicine has become interested in unconventional healing practices, ostensibly because of recent demographic research that reveals a thriving medical market of multiple options. This essay presents a historical overview of medical pluralism in the United States. Consistent evidence is examined suggesting that unconventional medicine has been a persistent presence in U.S. health care. Despite parallels with the past, the recent widespread interest in alternative medicine also represents a dramatic reconfiguration of medical pluralism—from historical antagonism to what might arguably be described as a topical acknowledgment of postmodern medical diversity. This recent shift may have less to do with acknowledging “new” survey data than with representing shifts in medicine's institutional authority in a consumer-driven health care environment. This essay is an introduction to a discussion of a taxonomy of contemporary U.S. medical pluralism, which also appears in this issue.

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