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Our Health Care in the Balance

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I feel compelled to write about a disturbing trend I have been noticing in my practice over the last couple of years. Three recent calls I received in a 24-hour period made me realize I must address this. A client called with a high temperature for a number of days after surgery, not feeling well, and wanting to know what to do. Another had pain in his chest and arm and thought it was an acid reaction and wanted to know what to take, and a third, had fallen resulting in a swollen and painful leg. In all three cases I said call your doctor. All three clients were reluctant. There is clearly a distrust of traditional health care these days that has many people reluctant to use it even when necessary. I explained that chest pain could be heartburn, but it also could be a heart attack or angina. The fever was likely an infection; a common occurrence after surgery, and the fall and injury should be assessed with an MRI before making any assumptions. This is what traditional health care is for, diagnosing and treating acute problems.

Of course, I and other complementary medicine practitioners can help you create a more robust and healthy immune system through dietary, lifestyle practices and supplements, which will likely prevent infections. We can help you accelerate healing and reduce the pain and swelling of an injury; avoid and heal heartburn; and certainly help you prevent a heart attack with myriad dietary and lifestyle practices. Typically though, these complementary sciences are systemic “practices” not single agent, single solution answers.

You don’t need to be an investigative journalist these days to realize that most Americans are disappointed, even disturbed by the state of our health care system, which is failing on many levels. It’s written about in newspapers and books, discussed in social circles and at the highest levels of government, and especially by those who experience an illness that’s not being helped. That’s when we really notice something is drastically wrong.

The disturbing trend I’m speaking about is three-fold:

First, our loss of faith in traditional medicine has led us to look to complementary medicine, even when acute medicine answers and procedures are needed.

Secondly, it has us running to MD’s with chronic symptoms and concerns for which they have no real or good answers.

Thirdly, when we look to complementary medicine, we expect it to have an “acute medicine” type of answer — meaning a quick, single agent, single answer solution. All three of these approaches will unfortunately lead to failure and disappointment.

Here is a very simplified short history of medicine that I believe will help with my explanation.

Short History of Medicine

2000 B.C.
Eat this root
1000 B.C.
Roots are heathen. Say a prayer.
1850 A.D.
Prayer is superstition. Take this potion.
1900 A.D.
That potion is snake oil. Take this pill.
1940 A.D.

That pill is useless. Take this antibiotic.
2000 A.D.
That antibiotic is no longer effective. Eat this root.

Like other complex issues that are so profoundly serious, we must sometimes find a way to use a little humor to penetrate interior realms and to try and understand what beliefs and assumptions have actually led us here. Let me first suggest we each call forth some self-compassion, because we have created this health care system together as a culture, and it’ll require cultural shifts to solve it. And looking through a deeper cultural lens, we can see how we tend to be quite “linear” and “hierarchical” in our thinking, meaning we place a very high value on knowing and practicing the one right way. I believe, as do many others that our world is now demanding a much more “systems thinking” point of view. In short this is a way of seeing the world, our environment and yes our bodies in much more interconnected, holistic ways. There is evidence of this need in all of our current societal challenges – global warming, the disappearing middle class, trade agreements, etc. It’s certainly very true of health care.

As a culture, we’ve believed in this one “right way” throughout the history of medicine. And often believed as well in a simple short-term answer. And even when that “right way” changed, it was always still the one way. Part of the problem today is in the language we use. First, it was called “alternative” medicine. But alternative means “something different from, and able to serve as a substitute for something else”. The newer term is complementary medicine. But complementary means, “completing something else”. Neither is accurate. Alternative assumes an either/or approach and complementary places all of the various healing modalities at the foot of traditional medicine to “complete” it. (Notice how we’re back to hierarchy either way!) I believe we now need some new labels and language that places traditional medicine in the continuous circle with all the other healing practices – one not substituting for the other, nor one above the other, but all having their place in helping to create health and vitality. I see it as a circle of practice – one leading to the next, integration and interplay. The center of that circle is each of us, fully in charge and responsible for our own health.

One of the causes of this, I believe, is that traditional medicine has historically tried to do more than it’s capable of doing. Traditional “health care” is really “sick-care”, so when you are really sick this is the place to go – the magic of this form of medicine happens in treating acute health challenges. But unfortunately most traditional doctor visits today are for chronic disease and chronic complaints, which has the disappointment levels in traditional medicine going off the charts. Also, it must be understood that most of the drugs used in medicine work well in acute situations, but many have not really been studied for long-term use. Using these very potent agents designed for acute issues have lead to long-term serious side effects when they are used to address more chronic concerns. Look to the case of Vioxx which was very effective for acute pain, but long-term use lead to serious problems, including deaths. Drugs like prilosec, acifex, prevacid and protonix, all great for short-term use for heartburn and reflux, can lead to serious consequences when used long-term. Regular use leads to poor digestion of substances important to health like protein and minerals, leaving one at risk for bone fractures and other health risks. Using acute problem solutions for chronic kinds of maladies and concerns has led to some very dramatic failures, ongoing serious risks and also some definite loss in faith in traditional medicine.

There is no single cause for chronic disease — but instead, a web of things come together to create symptoms. Addressing the whole web is necessary to achieve results. Not doing so is as effective as directing only the violinist rather than the whole orchestra when the music isn’t working.

Complementary medicine can work wonders with chronic diseases and symptoms by addressing the whole web of contributing factors. But unfortunately, we’ve been trained in our culture by the methods of traditional medicine, that is, one solution like a very potent drug, to solve or “fix” our problem. And that expectation can interfere with the real benefits and miracles in complementary medicine. “There must be something I can take”, is what I regularly hear in my practice. But when it comes to supplements, which are not potent drugs, they are effective when used in conjunction with eating healthfully and other practices. In complementary medicine, we can’t depend on having something “done to us”, but instead, we need to participate fully in our healing. In fact, sometimes there actually is a short answer with quick relief. But often, it requires participating fully in our own health. I’m finding at times that people are going from complementary practitioner to practitioner, as we used to go from MD to MD – looking for the “right” quick answer. As a result, I often find people are taking myriad supplements – one from the homeopath, one from the acupuncturist, the chiropractor, and then also from the neighbor, the massage therapist, or the “person I heard on the radio”. All in an effort to find the “fix” for the problem. Again, lets call forth some self-compassion for ourselves, as this is simply the underlying set of beliefs and assumptions that we’ve inherited from our deeper culture. And let’s also be clear that these beliefs and assumptions are no longer serving us. In fact, in some cases they are doing us great harm.

The best way we can all improve our health care is to first begin to look more closely at how we actually view and approach it. As I’ve said, it’s a problem bigger than each of us and needs to be solved in a larger, more systems-oriented context. In the meantime, however, we can begin making new headway in our own health by being clear about our needs and the options available to us for having ore needs skillfully met. Again, think of our circle of healing and how it is filled with a larger array of healing methods. Some of those methods (currently called traditional medicine) are the absolute best alternatives for our acute medical needs. Other healing methods (currently called complementary medicine) are the very best alternatives for chronic, longer term, systemic needs. Now we must be more adept and certain where exactly in the circle we must go for the kind of healing we need. Is the need acute or is the need chronic? Perhaps our unique health challenge points toward the need for both at any give time. The fact is, if we can get this balance right, there is tremendous leverage in our requiring fewer and fewer acute remedies, solutions and emergencies. In this we can all live better, more healthy and vital lives.