Integrative Health Care… The Future of Healthcare in America
I consider myself to be a typical medical doctor practicing traditional allopathic western medicine in America. I’ve taken care of thousands of patients the best way I knew how, and for years, I almost never questioned my methods or my beliefs because that’s the way I was taught. I always thought the things I was trained to do must be correct because my science said so. My teachers told me so. The medical journals told me so. The drug companies told me so. Patients believed in my methods. And I was smart enough to get into medical school! So of course, we doctors all must be right about what we’ve been doing all this time.
We American physicians are trained to ‘fix things that are broken’. We react when things have happened rather than give really serious thought to prevention. We evaluate symptoms and treat problems with medications. If we can’t treat with medicines, we try to operate the damage away with bypasses, or resections. Or burn it away with radiation, or poison it away with chemotherapy. In all honesty, it is the allopathic way of medical care. It’s not an issue of right or wrong; it’s how allopathic medical care has evolved since the early 1800s.
Who is Responsible for Illness?
The responsibility for illness has so frequently been thought of as the fault of the patient and not the physician. We doctors have been saying for years, when we fail to cure a patient, that we did everything we could. Too bad. He or she should have quit smoking and drinking and lost weight years ago. This makes for quite an unsatisfactory relationship, to say the least, between patient and caregiver. If you are looking for a partnership in health promotion or prevention, you’re likely to think the way we do things now in the traditional arena is not good.
So the question that confronts traditional medical practice now—the question that needs our most careful attention— is this: do we American physicians really do everything we SHOULD do to fix, or better yet, prevent, the problems facing healthcare in America? Do we do what we should to address the profound epidemics of obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s dementia, cancer, autism, and inflammatory bowel disease that scream for our attention? As I see it, the answer has to be a resounding NO.
Three Patient Populations
Let’s consider that there exist three entirely different populations of patients who seek health care in America. First, there are the ill or damaged patients who want to be fixed. Second, there are the patients with conditions such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, or high cholesterol who are not quite broken yet, but need modification in their lives before they become ill or damaged. And third, there are the healthy, younger Americans who want to stay that way and not accumulate the conditions that would lead to illness or damage as they get older.
Traditional MDs in America spend the vast majority of their time and energy on that first population. Unfortunately, this population consumes the largest share of healthcare dollars, the patients are already ‘broken’ and many can’t be fixed. Be it advanced cancer, diabetic blindness, stroke, or emphysema, the permanent damage is already done. Our treatments are palliative and not curative or preventive. But what about the others.
Healthcare that Focuses on Prevention
The best healthcare of the future, and the use of more and more healthcare dollars, will focus on the second and third populations of patients. Prevention of illness will be the emphasis of healthcare in the future, not treatment after the fact. This is the correct way. Not the way I’ve been taught to practice medicine for almost three decades. We healthcare practitioners in America need to promote health and wellness at all levels because that way is the path to improved health at all levels. We have been misdirected for so long.
Healthcare that Focuses on the Individual
We are beginning to recognize that each person is an individual with highly personal characteristics that make their conditions unique. While there are lifestyle modifications that can benefit everyone, there also are individual steps—things that are specific to each individual patient— that can be addressed to help achieve better results.
At the very least, we Western-trained allopathic practitioners need to learn that many other modalities of healthcare are as valid and effective as our own. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have a 5,000 year tradition of healing and their effectiveness in many conditions is undeniable. Herbal treatments, in expert hands, can play a strong role in healing. The power of the mind in creating success in ameliorating or even curing disease has been shown repeatedly to be magical in many instances, where traditional allopathic cures have failed. Energy medicine in all forms, Reiki, meditation, etc., can be complimentary treatments that empower patients to play active roles in their own success on their road to healing. Chiropractic care, in the hands of expertly trained individuals, is very often successful when physical therapy or surgery has failed.
The movement in healthcare delivery is rapidly changing and offers patients new hope. Non-traditional modalities like naturopathy, energy healing, and spiritual awareness are recognized to be every bit as valid as pharmaceutical prescriptions. In fact, science is proving, in more and more research studies, that natural, non-drug treatments for some of our chronic inflammatory conditions is even more effective than taking another pill.
Integrative health care recognizes the benefits and the successes at a scientific level of all healthcare modalities and strives to connect the right treatment to the patient. Healthcare becomes individualized and it is becoming clear that one treatment is not the right choice for every person. The correct treatment of the diabetes epidemic is diet change, weight loss and lifestyle change, not more diabetes pills and injections. The correct treatment for gastroesophageal reflux is diet management and stress reduction through attention to lifestyle, not the ubiquitous antacid pills. The correct treatment for obesity is not to have surgery, but rather to pay serious attention to our American diet and our fast-paced lifestyle, and to change our habits in a serious and meaningful way.
The responsibility isn’t on the doctor alone any more but on the patient as well. Good healthcare is a true partnership. Wellness before illness strikes requires important modifications in how we, as traditional physicians, have been doing things for years. Both the doctor and the patient need to change. It requires education and open-mindedness for us to know what we as practitioners are supposed to recommend and then it requires motivation by the patient to get the job done. It also is the team collaboration with all health practitioners of any discipline, traditional or nontraditional, to work together to promote the best individualized recommendations. We need to teach our patients who invest their trust in our recommendations that they need to be willing to stop bad habits and incorporate new habits for health for the long run. We as healthcare providers need to walk the talk.
It’s the only way now. Integrative healthcare, the collaboration of all traditional and nontraditional modalities, is the way of the future of health care in America. The movement is palpable. The outcry for change is loud. The public is demanding that kind of care from all practitioners. It is our obligation and responsibility to respond correctly, with an open mind, and with respect for everything that is available to our patients, to improve our success in health care delivery— the sooner the better.
Michael B. Teiger, MD, FCCP, is the founder of New England Integrative Health Associates (NEIHA) located in Bishop’s Corner in West Hartford, CT. He is a graduate of UConn Medical School in Farmington and has been in private practice in the Hartford area since 1983. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Pulmonary and Critical Care. Over the last four years, his practice has moved from the critical care/hospital arena into a more Holistic approach to healthcare delivery, where diet and lifestyle, disease prevention and medication reduction are much more a focus, rather than treatment of problems after they arise. Everyone at NEIHA recognizes and respects all modalities of healthcare delivery, whether ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ and strives to connect patients to the most appropriate modality of evaluation and treatment to achieve Health and Wellness. NEIHA, 345 North Main St., Suite 101, West Hartford, CT; 860-278-3812; www.neihact.com.