Helen Yee and Diane Sater-Wee founded the American Institute of Alternative Medicine in the early 1990s, when massage was not as accepted or understood.

When Helen Yee and Diane Sater-Wee founded the American Institute of Alternative Medicine 29 years ago, it seemed like they spent as much time explaining what the institute taught as they did actually teaching. But as the U.S. has become more familiar with alternative medicine over the past few decades, demand for the kind of training the institute’s graduates walk away with has steadily grown.

The school is a private, accredited institute that offers master’s degrees in acupuncture, licensed massage therapy with a specialization in neuromuscular therapy, and licensed practical nurse training. The institute also offers clinic services in acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and massage therapy. Its mission is to help students focus on each client’s mind, body and spirit, says Yee, the institute’s CFO. “People want to take claim over more holistic approaches to their health, what they feel is a more natural, non-invasive way of dealing with health issues,” she says.

Yee first became interested in sports massage while competing with the U.S. tae kwon do team—she won silver in 1990 at the World Cup in Madrid. “It really helped with my recovery time after injuries,” she says. In the early 1990s, massage therapy wasn’t nearly as well-known, Yee says. “Diane and I saw a unique niche we could fill. We wanted to open a clinic that provided only massage therapy services (rather than spa or salon services),” Yee says.

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She and Sater-Wee started their first clinic in 1990, offering 10 treatment rooms in a medical facility, not only for health aspects, but to differentiate themselves from massage parlors or salons. Even still, Yee says, explaining what they did often felt like a full-time job. “Back in the day it was very taboo,” she says.

But the emphasis on health, rather than relaxation, proved successful. The two decided to shift gears into education. “We began with massage, and later when it became legal (in 2000) we added acupuncture to the curriculum,” Sater-Wee says. “And we started noticing that a lot of nurses were going through the programs, people who already had medical licenses. And it turned out they were dissatisfied with what their actual jobs were—a lot of paperwork, insurance work. This new avenue was giving them a way to have direct access to patients and get back into why they started nursing to begin with.”

Noticing that demand, they quickly added nursing to the institute’s curriculum. “We wanted that to be based on a foundation of holistic healing, seeing the patient and body as a whole,” Yee says. “That really helped in the long run, because people have really been drawn to that.”

Burt Solomon, who now works as Bella Care Hospice’s Licking County coordinator, graduated from the institute’s nursing program in 2017. After a career in cosmetology, that holistic approach to medicine, along with career guidance, was what he was seeking.

“For me, it was the perfect fit,” Solomon says. “Other programs out there mention that immersion and holistic approach, but that isn’t always necessarily the case.”

Sater-Wee says while the opioid crisis has brought much pain to Ohio and beyond, it has also made doctors and insurers more interested in non-opioid solutions to pain management, particularly procedures like massage and acupuncture. In July, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it will begin covering acupuncture services from board-certified acupuncturists.

As that demand increases, the institute is focused on remaining attractive to new students. That includes a shift toward new technology, such as 3D imaging platforms that allow students to observe cadavers being virtually dissected, and even new platforms to simulate births.

“That’s the leading edge of policy direction in the United States,” Sater-Wee says. “It gives me hope for our country that they’re going in the direction of more natural methods.”