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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

USA Today
May 04, 2000

by Julie Appleby

HMOs Take Spritual Approach

Health plans, buffeted in recent years for their no-frills approach
to medical care, are pushing ever further into alternative medicine,
hoping to find low-cost ways to boost patient satisfaction. Need help understanding the meaning of life? No problem. A Denver-based HMO offers spiritual counseling, six visits at $ 10 a pop. Fearing surgery? Blue Shield of California unveils a new prescription today: free audiocassettes for patients aimed at harnessing their imaginations to promote healing. Has health care gone California? Such efforts fly in the face of the back-to-basics approach many managed-care plans have adopted in recent years. But although alternative care is popular, particularly on the West Coast, some wonder whether spiritual counseling and guided imagery will sell in the heartland. "I think this is probably appropriate for California. But I just can't see it having a lot of application in Chicago," says Blaine Bos, a principal at benefits firm William Mercer. More to the point, what about the boardroom? "I've never heard employers suggesting that this is something they want," Bos says. Yet those opinions could shift if the plans show results in speedier healing, cost savings or even just happier patients. "It has the potential to catch on," says Camille Haltom, a consultant with Hewitt Associates. "With growing dissatisfaction with managed care, these are low-cost cost ideas that can be well received by participants." Blue Shield expects to reach 5,000 to 7,000 patients each year with its surgical counseling tapes, spending about $ 20 each for the cassette and a phone consultation with a nurse. It plans to track the members who use the tapes to see how they fare after surgery compared with those who don't. The tapes (not to be used, the plan warns, while driving!) have listeners imagine entering a magic screen where they see themselves wheeled into an operating room. In the OR, competent medical staff care for them and say such things as "this patient isn't bleeding very much at all," says the tape's creator, therapist Belleruth Naparstek of Cleveland. Naparstek says a study at the University of California-Davis, found that surgery patients who used the tapes did bleed less -- and left the hospital 28 hours sooner than patients who had not. In Colorado, supporters say spiritual counseling, too, can help patients get better faster. "We would like it to be preventive," says Neil Waldron, head of the Sloans Lake health plan. "We also think it can reduce cost." Still, cynics abound. "The health plans are just trying to create a mirage to make patients forget they've been deserted," says HMO critic Jamie Court of Consumers for Quality Care.

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