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Updated Nov 21, 2012 - 3:53 pm

New UA medical center promotes holistic approach

PHOENIX -- Feeling a need to be more responsible for her health after her parents fell ill, Colleen McPherson said she was eager to try a new clinic blending conventional care with lifestyle coaching and stress-reducing techniques.

"I don't want to be afraid of getting old, and I think I was developing some anxiety about that," she said. "Every birthday was not fun. I want this program to make me feel like I'm on top of it and doing the best I can."

The University of Arizona Integrative Health Center, which opened recently near downtown Phoenix, offers primary care but also acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, yoga classes, nutritional advice and physical training.

It's based on the vision of Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the UA's Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Another one is planned for Tucson in a year, followed by more across the nation, according to Heidi Rula, medical director and integrative medicine physician.

"We're trying to create a new way to deliver health care that is very prevention-focused versus the standard medical system, which is disease management," she said. "Lifestyle issues are the most powerful things that can change the course of chronic disease, so we're trying to maximize making those because they're one of the hardest things to do. You need support to be able to do that."

The center accepts insurance, and patients fill out a 17-page intake form before they arrive. Then they have a 60-90 minute appointment with a doctor, Rula said.

A typical patient is a female who's interested in her health, has complex medical issues and hasn't had successful treatment or who's interested in getting off prescription drugs and turning to alternative therapies, according to Rula.

"We look at a lot of lifestyle components like how happy are they in their daily life? How are they sleeping? What's their spirituality?" she said. "We're addressing what their pain scores are, so we want to understand if they have any history of abuse and all those things that are important in understanding a whole person."

Dr. Michelle May, the Phoenix-based author of "Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat," said the increasing interest in integrative health will sustain a patient base for the new clinic.

"I like that it integrates both conventional and more of the complementary therapies. I think that's the winning combination," May said. "People are looking for more of that complete care for themselves and their families. They don't want to be just a body or a number on a scale or a lab test or a diagnosis."

But May said that someone doesn't have to go to an integrative center to get good health care.

"Family physicians always had this perspective, and with the right doctor, you will get that anyway," she said. "I think we ought not to look at any one thing as being the panacea. I think the value to something like this is to allow us to look at options for treatment."

At the Arizona Department of Health Services, Sheila Sjolander, assistant director of public health prevention services, said the center represents a positive trend toward what residents can be doing for their health.

"The time for prevention is now," she said. "There's a growing awareness in Arizona."

Nationally, a critical prevention strategy began last year moving sick care to wellness, according to Sjolander.

"Our department has a vision for health and wellness, recognizing that wellness means emotional health, occupational health, financial and social health," she added. "We know how important it is to pay attention to physical activity, what we're eating, managing our stress and making healthy choices."

Patient Colleen McPherson said she's taking her daughter to the integrative clinic to get healthy nutritional habits started early.

"They're ahead of their time. This is really what health care reform is trying to do for the whole country," she said.

An integrative approach may be the answer to saving money and getting people healthier, according to Rula.

"If you look at the amount of dollars we spend compared to other countries and then you look at markers of disease, we spend more than any other country in the world, but we don't have that in terms of the wellness," she said.

To discover the effectiveness of integrative medicine, the center will be studying volunteers over several years, Rula said.

"Corporations are taking the hit for the wellness of their employees," she added. "From productivity to absenteeism, there's a strong interest in having a well employee."

McPherson said until recently she thought she was bulletproof.

"What I'm hoping to get out of this is peace of mind," she said. "I'm grateful for health. It's a blessing."

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