IN HIS OFFICE during his first week on the job as president of Bastyr University, Tom Shepherd admits he was a "long shot" to take over the helm of arguably the country's foremost school of alternative medicine. He has never run a university before. More surprisingly, he does not come from the world of alternative medicine, making for a sharp contrast with former president and cofounder Joseph Pizzorno, a naturopath who wrote textbooks that helped define his field while presiding over the Bothell institution for 22 years.
Shepherd is instead a business guy, someone who, by his own account, is best at accounting and managing and strategizing. He has specialized in his career at turning around troubled hospitals. He has been CEO of five of them, the first time when he was a mere 26 years old. Despite his youth, Shepherd says he increased the hospital's occupancy by about two-thirds within 18 months. Most recently, he served as president of a hospital management company he cofounded in North Carolina called Royale Healthcare.
That a respectable, conventional type like Shepherd would come to head an institution once associated with a hippie fringe reflects both how mainstream alternative medicine has become and how much more so proponents hope to make it. Much as they sometimes sound like holy crusaders, Bastyr's guardians do not shy away from thinking of alternative medicine as a business, and they see tremendous growth potential.
Alternative medicine, actually a hodgepodge of treatments ranging from herbal supplements to acupuncture to hydrotherapy, is already a $21 billion industry nationwide. It has made particular inroads in the Northwest, thanks in good measure to Bastyr. The chief medical officer of the institution's Wallingford clinic, Jane Guiltinan, became the first naturopath to sit on a hospital board anywhere in the country when she assumed a seat on Harborview's board a couple of years ago, the objections of some doctors notwithstanding.
In addition, King County found its natural medicine clinic in Kent, launched with Bastyr's help and the first government-funded facility of its kind, to be so popular that it recently added alternative medical services to its Redmond clinic. Probably most importantly of all, with a law passed in 1995 Washington became the first state to require insurance companies to cover alternative medicine.
Such cracking open of the medical establishment has made those in the field relax their historic bunker mentality, which helps explain why they feel comfortable with an outsider taking over their most prestigious institution. "When you have the practice so well underpinned in law and reimbursement, there's not a lot of paranoia," says Bruce Milliman, a board member of the Washington Association of Naturopath Physicians.
AS IT TURNS OUT, even a seemingly conventional guy like Shepherd, who hails from the conservative South, uses alternative medicine—extensively. The personable 49-year-old, who wears a gray beard and glasses, makes his own herbal remedies when he comes down with the flu, using ingredients such as echinacea and cayenne. He has long received chiropractic treatment and has dabbled in homeopathy, a particularly controversial discipline that relies on remedies resembling nothing more than water because they are made from highly diluted substances.
While members of Bastyr's search committee admit they were reassured by Shepherd's personal experience with alternative medicine, they say that what they wanted most was a leader who could take Bastyr to "the next level." To be sure, the school has already increased student enrollment exponentially to its current 1,000, added ever more programs including a new one in spirituality, and created a research center that has attracted grants from the National Institute of Health.
Now, however, Bastyr wants to reach further out into the mainstream world to form partnerships with hospitals, clinics, and medical schools. The county's Kent clinic, which integrates alternative and conventional medical care, serves as a model for their expansion. Shepherd says he envisions such partnerships occurring across the country, with great potential to generate revenue.
Another key priority of Bastyr is, as board chair Don Murphy puts it, "to expand the markets for our graduates." Strategies to accomplish this include pressing for insurance coverage in other states and lobbying for licensing laws, as in Washington, that would eliminate current limitations on practitioners in many states.
Finally, Bastyr wants to conduct a capital campaign to establish endowments and to buy the idyllic piece of property it now rents adjacent to forested St. Edward State Park.
Fundraising, lobbying, forming strategic partnerships, all these endeavors seem suited to someone with mainstream credibility like Shepherd. "I think it will be much easier for him to open doors," says ex-president Pizzorno.
That is not to say that a naturopath like Pizzorno can't open a few as well. The author of Total Wellness and coauthor of A Textbook of Natural Medicine has himself turned entrepreneurial. He has founded a company called Expert Health Systems that employs 25 and aims to "bring natural medicine to corporations." Claiming proprietary secrets, he won't disclose much more than that, except to say that he's now talking to venture capitalists.
What next, an IPO? Alternative medicine has come a long way indeed.