Modern day medicine: Reno-Tahoe hospitals increase alternative, integrative options to meet demand

Dr. Justin Chang of Renown Health in Reno performs acupuncture on a patient.

Dr. Justin Chang of Renown Health in Reno performs acupuncture on a patient.

RENO, Nev. — Alternative medicine is going mainstream in the Reno-Tahoe region.

Across the United States, top hospitals are beginning to offer treatments and services previously limited to the offices of holistic, naturopathic or oriental medicine practitioners.

This July, Barton Health celebrated the grand opening of its $15 million Center for Orthopedics and Wellness in South Lake Tahoe. The 26,000-square-foot facility houses Barton’s orthopedics and rehabilitation department — complete with a state-of-the-art gym and aquatic center — as well as the hospital’s wellness program.

In the wellness program, clients get an integrative medicine consultation, where a provider looks at all aspects of the person’s nutrition, lifestyle, goals and values to create a personalized care plan to help with anything from chronic conditions to just general wellbeing.

They offer mindfulness training, nutritionists, yoga, health coaches and acupuncture.

“I think it is on edge and in line with what the population is demanding and what needs to shift in modern day medicine,” said Melinda Choy, a licensed acupuncturist, who splits her time between her private practice Elevate Wellness and Barton’s wellness center. “We’ve come from a perspective of reactive medicine to being more proactive and really supporting the whole person rather than the compartmentalization of medicine.”

Even Barton’s orthopedic department has embraced the influence of Eastern medicine. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Bannar now prescribes “nature therapy” for his post-op patients.

Through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Barton hosts “wellness walks” out on the trails to get patients up and moving and enjoying the restorative benefits of being outside.

“The research supports it. It improves your blood pressure, cortisol levels, immune system, mentation ... decreases depression, and that’s even without any significant exercise — that’s just getting out into nature,” said Bannar. “We’re trying to incorporate the public lands as a health resource. This is something in terms of integrative medicine this has been used in Japanese culture for 40 years.

“They have designated healing sites and they refer to it as ‘forest bathing.’ We want to incorporate that here in Tahoe and develop some healing sites.”

Bannar says that although the change is happened at a “glacial speed,” medicine is experiencing a “paradigm shift.”

“We have to promote wellness and not treat disease. For the viability of our system and our future absolutely we should be looking at good nutrition, healthy mindset, and a healthy environment,” noted Bannar.


Across the state line in Nevada, Renown Health in Reno has made similar moves in its Integrative Primary Care department, where alternative and Eastern medicinal practices like acupuncture and meditation are used alongside traditional Western medical treatments.

Derek Beenfeldt, chief of primary care at Renown Health, credits the shift in part to a more informed patient.

“I get a sense that over the decades, patients have gone from more of a reliance on their provider telling them what is best for them to more of a team approach between the provider and patient,” said Beenfeldt. “With the Internet they have access to more information, and patients have the ability to identify different approaches that they might want to take.”

Beenfeldt has also noticed an uptick in patients who would prefer what they perceive to be more “natural” treatments, like using the ground root turmeric as an anti-inflammatory over pharmaceuticals.

“To some extent, patients are tending toward not wanting to put what they perceive to be a foreign substance in their body,” said Beenfeldt. “So taking approaches that might not include taking a medication is a direction that seems to be a more healthy approach for that particular patient.”

Dr. Justin Chang, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and acupuncturist at Renown, agrees that there is a growing awareness in the United States around alternative medicine as well as taking a whole-body approach to disease and maintaining wellness.

“There has been a gradual shift over the years in terms of how we can rescue people from the brinks of acute disease, and we’ve realized gradually in terms of chronic conditions, a singular approach is not achieving the degree of efficacy that we’re wanting,” said Chang.

However, there are still pieces that need to come into place for alternative medicine to be more accessible to all members of the population.


While employing health coaches, mindfulness teachers and nutritionists with a focus on maintaining whole-body wellness — and not just treating symptoms — sounds like an ideal system, the fact is that most of these services and alternative treatments won’t be covered by insurance.

“Insurance isn’t always going to want to pay for the time it takes to dig deep into a patient’s history and do the different lab testing it takes to look for the issue. So that’s a huge barrier,” said Dr. Tara Finley, a naturopathic doctor who runs The Finley Center in Reno.

Though naturopathic doctors attend accredited four-year medical schools — but also promote holistic, natural treatment — Nevada is not one of the 20 states that have a licensure process for them. They are therefore not considered primary care doctors and not covered by insurance.

“Our system is so entwined in the status quo, it’s going to take some time to make progress,” added Barton’s Bannar, noting that insurance coverage of alternative treatments are a “barrier,” but that many people are willing to make that investment in their own health and pay out of pocket.

But there has been some progress made in insurance coverage as more studies have pointed to the benefits of alternative treatments like acupuncture.

Major insurers like Aetna, Anthem and some regional Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates now cover acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain and nausea. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, however, will not, and say the evidence is insufficient.

“As with every aspect of change, and as complex as the healthcare system is, there are different pieces that need to come together,” noted Renown’s Chang. “I think we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”


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