Supported by thick timbers hung with vines and colorful banners, the home of Morningstar Healing Arts in Ashland more closely resembles a tree house than a doctor's office. Sunlight and the sound of running water permeate the hexagonal edifice that's as unconventional as Dr. Howard Morningstar's practice.
"The physical space itself reflects the energy of healing," Morningstar says.
Visitors know the doctor not by his white coat, but by the physician's winged insignia pinned to a leather pouch around his neck, an adornment that accentuates Morningstar's gnomish gray beard. Clad in a nubby sweater and clogs, Morningstar looks every inch the herbalist, an age-old vocation that led him to study modern medicine more than two decades ago.
"Health is normal and natural," he says. "It's our birthright."
Looking to serve as many people as possible, Morningstar chose the path of conventional medicine at Yale Medical College over a naturopath's training. When he returned to Ashland in 1996, he founded an integrative clinic, the area's first to incorporate natural, holistic therapies with mainstream medical treatment. Morningstar's is a family-oriented practice with a strong emphasis on preventing disease using common-sense approaches to diet and exercise, which he calls "the foundations of health.
"When I started doing this, we were kind of inventing it from scratch," Morningstar says. "The integrating part — it's self-trained.
"Every doctor does practice integrative medicine to some extent."
That extent has widened considerably since he entered the field, Morningstar says, and continues to grow in popularity. Last year, the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center launched a consult service to provide its physicians, nurses and other members with information from medical staff at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In a press release, NIH cited "high-quality" evidence of the safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine, including herbal supplements, meditation, chiropractic manipulation and acupuncture.
A 2002 National Health Interview Survey showed that more than one-third of all American adults use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, usually without consulting their physicians, according to the NIH. The agency aimed to identify complementary or alternative therapies that patients at its clinical center might be using and how those therapies might affect other medical treatments.
Diagnosed in 2000 with breast cancer, Jacksonville resident Lori Sours chose acupuncture and herbal supplements, along with surgery and chemotherapy. Her cancer hasn't returned.
"The acupuncture helped with nausea and energy level," Sours says. "I knew that I liked the approach."
So Sours, 54, jumped into the patient queue when Dr. Robin Miller opened Triune Integrative Medicine two years ago in Medford. Diagnosed with a thyroid dysfunction, Sours again submitted to acupuncture. She also worked with Miller's nutritionist and psychologist, rounding out her exposure to all wellness avenues that Triune offers.
"It feels like such a rational approach to treat the whole person," Sours says. Some of my issues were stress management, weight management."
Obesity and diabetes rates in the United States, compounded by an insurance void, are brewing a "perfect storm," Miller says. She blames "McDonald's medicine," the physician's quick reflex to hand out prescription drugs that drove her in 2001 to study alternatives with Dr. Andrew Weil, the Arizona physician who is credited with popularizing integrative medicine in the U.S.
"I've always known that there's more to medicine than what I was being taught," Miller says.
A moment of clarity came as Miller — then an internist at Medford Clinic — was writing a single patient's 10th prescription, another stop-gap remedy that ultimately wasn't going to make a difference.
"I knew what she needed, and I wasn't going to be able to give it to her because I didn't have the time," Miller says.
Uncovering the roots of poor health is simply too time-consuming for physicians who have been forced to see more and more patients to keep up with rising costs and dwindling reimbursements, says Nisha Jackson, founder and owner of Medford's Ventana Wellness. Practitioners of integrative medicine must devote more time to each patient to determine how best to help them, she says, adding that Ventana's appointments are typically 30 to 40 minutes long. Miller says she spends more than an hour with each new patient.
At Ventana and Morningstar Healing Arts, patients can undergo numerous alternative and complementary treatments — from massage and chiropractic to pain management and energy healing — all under one roof. The concept not only promotes compatibility among diverse disciplines but also patients' healing, practitioners say.
"Consumers are definitely the driving force here," Jackson says. "They are sick and tired of the five-minute visit "¦ and not getting better."
Although Jackson began her medical career as a nurse practitioner specializing in women's health, a patient's hormonal difficulties prompted her pursuit of alternative therapies in 1992. Jackson recalls that the woman, who wasn't functioning well on a standard hormone replacement therapy, asked "Is this all there is?" It took Jackson years of study to find an acceptable answer in plant-derived, "bioidentical" hormones.
"If somebody is saying that, there's got to be a lot of people who feel that way," Jackson says.
Jackson helped fill the local niche for integrative medicine over eight years at Southern Oregon Health & Wellness Center. But she still referred many patients to practitioners outside the clinic for complementary and alternative therapies. In 2006, she built the Ventana complex on Medford's State Street to accommodate more than a dozen practitioners. Staffing a medical doctor and a naturopath in the same clinic was previously taboo in Medford, Jackson says.
"I still think there's this perception that alternative medicine is kind of wacky," she says. "It's kind of like voodoo."
But fear of the unknown fades in the face of patients' progress. Most often, Miller is able to rescind her patients' prescriptions for medications that lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Those patients instead rely on a sound diet, adequate exercise and natural supplements to keep their bodies in balance, Miller says. While she recommends the regimen, patients must do the work necessary to improve their condition.
"Integrative medicine is a partnership with the patient," Miller says.
Morningstar agrees and interviews all potential patients to determine whether they are motivated to stay healthy instead of seeking someone to "fix" their ailments. His motto is everyone should be responsible for his or her own health.
"You correct with lifestyle changes," he says. "We're designed to heal ourselves."