Two weeks ago, my wife, son and I traveled to Portland, Ore., to watch my daughter, Kate, receive a doctoral degree in naturopathic medicine from the National College of Natural Medicine. It’s not a career path I anticipated for her, but I’m proud that she’s pursuing it.
When we tell friends in our hometown, St. Louis, about Kate’s chosen profession, the reaction ranges from curiosity to polite skepticism to, in one case, near hostility. In the West, though, and I think eventually in most of the country, the outlook for naturopathic physicians is good.
I was delighted to see an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic called “The Triumph of New-Age Medicine.” It gives ample space to critics of natural, holistic and integrative medicine, but it also makes a number of counterbalancing points, such as:
- Medicine’s triumph over infectious disease (has) brought to the fore the so-called chronic, complex diseases—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses without a clear causal agent. Now that we live longer, these typically late-developing diseases have become by far our biggest killers. Heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases now account for three-quarters of our health-care spending. “We face an entirely different set of big medical challenges today,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco and a Nobel laureate. “But we haven’t rethought the way we fight illness.” That is, the medical establishment still waits for us to develop some sign of one of these illnesses, then seeks to treat us with drugs and surgery.
- As a prominent 2000 study showed, America spends vastly more on health as a percentage of gross domestic product than every other country—40 percent more than France, the fourth-biggest payer. Yet while France was ranked No. 1 in health-care effectiveness and other major measures, the United States ranked 37th, near the bottom of all industrialized countries.
- The medical community knows perfectly well what sort of patient-care model would work better against complex diseases . . . the promotion of a healthy diet, encouragement of more exercise, and measures to reduce stress. Natural medicine is ideally situated for this type of patient-care model.
- Medicine has long known what gets patients to make the lifestyle changes that appear to be so crucial for lowering the risk of serious disease: lavishing attention on them. That means longer, more frequent visits; more focus on what’s going on in their lives; more effort spent easing anxieties, instilling healthy attitudes, and getting patients to take responsibility for their well-being; and concerted attempts to provide hope. Studies have shown that when a doctor speaks to a patient about quitting smoking or losing weight, the patient is more likely to do it.
- This “healing” approach to patient care clearly isn’t found in the typical visit to the doctor’s office. Studies show that visits average about 20 minutes, that doctors change the subject back to technical talk when patients mention their emotions, that they interrupt patients’ initial statements after 23 seconds on average, that they spend a single minute providing information, and that they bring up weight issues with fewer than half their overweight patients. Again, natural medicine focuses on taking time with the patient and being supportive.
The training at Kate’s school is rigorous. The first two years of study cover exactly the same material as any other U.S. medical school. After that, though, the curriculum spends a great deal more time exploring how to help patients achieve and maintain health, not just how to fight diseases and disorders.
Kate and her fellow graduates are committed to the healing approach discussed in The Atlantic, and I believe they have a lot to offer to the practice of medicine and the healing arts.
Of course, I’m prejudiced, and I’m eager to see my daughter make a difference in people’s lives.
My question for you today is this: Where do you stand on new directions in medicine? Are you supportive or not? Let me know what you think.