Want to know the real truth about healthcare in this country?
Even if President Obama and Congress get everything else right in healthcare reform, it won't matter...that is, unless we address the underlying causes of illness that drive both skyrocketing healthcare costs and the proliferation of chronic disease.
But we can't get there with our current model of medicine, and that's what nobody is currently talking about, not even President Obama.
However, there is a solution...
Thankfully, an innovative approach currently exists that can not only prevent but also more effectively treat chronic disease...more about that in a moment.
To effectively reform healthcare in the U.S., we must change not only the way we practice medicine, but also the type of medicine we practice.
We must improve financing and delivery of healthcare, as well as our fundamental scientific approach to chronic disease -- an epidemic that now affects 133 million Americans and accounts for 78 percent of healthcare costs.
Healthcare costs are now approaching 20 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- approximately $2.5 trillion, or $8,160 per person annually. This is more than what the federal government spends on national defense, homeland security, education, and welfare combined!
Unless real change is made we are facing an impending collapse of our economy as more of our resources are put toward caring for the chronically ill.
This is a national security issue that threatens our standing in the world. As President Obama has stated, "Healthcare reform is no longer just a moral imperative, it is a fiscal imperative."
Fortunately, there is a new model of medicine that offers the real change we need. This new medicine is personalized, preventive, predictive, participatory, and patient-centered.
It is proactive rather than reactive. And it addresses the causes of disease and optimizes biologic function in the body's core physiologic systems, rather than just treating symptoms.
Why We Need to Change Healthcare Now
Our current model of medicine is unsustainable because it cannot stem the rising tide of chronic disease.
Relying only on reforms in coverage or access, financing, electronic records, malpractice, medical errors, coordination of care, and research on new drug therapies -- while retaining the conventional acute-care model -- will be untenable in the long run.
To be sure, such reforms are necessary, but not sufficient to avoid the collapse of our healthcare system, which may soon dwarf our current financial crisis if the Medicare trust fund runs out in 2016 as projected. According to the "Status of the Social Security and Medicare Programs" annual trustees report just published, the program is actually bankrupt right now - it has taken in less money than it has paid out two years running.
This is not being alarmist; this is simply facing reality.
Here's the problem: These reforms do not alter the fundamental approach to prevention and treatment.
If we focus on improving the way we practice the medicine of the past, we will still have the medicine of the past. If we improve the wrong type of care, then we will simply be doing the wrong things better.
Conventional acute-care medicine is disease-, drug-, and procedure-based and is designed for acute illness, trauma, and end-stage disease for which it is the best form of treatment in the world.
As a result, our current medical education focuses on sickness rather than health; journals publish about disease management not what causes disease.
However, disease-based, acute-care medicine is the wrong model to address chronic illness, because it doesn't address why people are sick or the underlying mechanisms and biologic causes of their illness.
This is why we spend more money than any other industrialized nation on healthcare yet are near the bottom of the list for all major health outcomes. This is why we are witnessing a decline in life expectancy for the first time in history.
The Right Solution for the Problem of Chronic Disease
Functional medicine, on the other hand, is a system of personalized care that directly addresses how our environment and lifestyle influence our genes to create imbalances in our core biologic systems that, over time, manifest as disease. It is this kind of medicine that is needed to create real success in 21st century medicine.
Functional medicine is not a new treatment, test, or procedure--it is a new "operating system" or method for problem solving and processing complex clinical information.
It is a fundamentally different way of thinking about the origins and mechanisms of illness. It encompasses all the tools of healing and medicine, both conventional and integrative. And it provides a common language, a map or GPS system for navigating through the puzzle of chronic illness.
Simply put, functional medicine identifies why our underlying biology is imbalanced and corrects those imbalances. Then our body's natural healing intelligence takes over and automatically fixes what's ailing us.
This is the future of medicine and it's available right now.
A growing coalition of practitioners, educators, and scientists is dedicated to advancing this model. I am part of that coalition.
We at the Institute for Functional Medicine have introduced 20,000 physicians and healthcare providers to functional medicine since 1991, and we wrote the Textbook of Functional Medicine in 2005 to describe both the underlying science and the practical clinical strategies and tools that comprise this new model.
This is not just an elegant theory - it works in practice ... something that I am very familiar with since I have been practicing functional medicine for over 10 years.
Let me illustrate how this works with real patients I have treated in my practice.
A Woman with Multiple Chronic Diseases
Deborah, a 46-year-old woman, having seen a dozen doctors over a dozen years, came to me with 29 different diagnoses, including depression, hypertension, obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, migraines, heavy menstrual bleeding, asthma, sinusitis, irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and psoriasis.
Each disease was treated with the best available conventional treatment. But she was still sick, despite 9 medications.
Of course, she didn't have 29 separate diseases. She had imbalances in a few of her core underlying biologic systems --digestive, immunologic, and hormonal--that gave rise to all her symptoms.
The underlying cause of all her "diseases" was an autoimmune response to gluten, leading to autoimmune thyroid disease and severe vitamin D deficiency because of low absorption of nutrients from the foods she consumed.
Six weeks after eliminating gluten from her diet (wheat, barley, rye, etc.), improving her diet, and replacing thyroid hormone and vitamin D, her 29 diseases were completely gone--along with 21 pounds...not a bad side effect!
A Boy with Attention Deficit Disorder and Asthma and Allergies
Clayton was a 12-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavior problems and had poor school performance who was on Ritalin for years. He also had illegible handwriting, or dysgraphia.
He also had apparently "unrelated" problems of asthma, allergies, hives, stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, muscle cramps, and anxiety and a history frequent infections and antibiotic use.
He had seen 5 specialists (lung, gastroenterologist, allergist, psychiatrist, and neurologist) and was on 7 medications for allergies, asthma, pain, and ADHD. No one asked how everything was connected, or how his diet of junk food and sugar made him sick.
His immune system was activated, his digestion not working, and he was nutritionally deficient in zinc, omega-3 fats, magnesium, and vitamin B6.
We simply normalized his biologic function by removing impediments to health (junk food diet, food sensitivities, overgrowth of yeast, and lead) and providing the ingredients necessary for optimal biologic function--a whole-foods diet, additional nutrients including vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fats, and probiotics.
In two months he returned without any physical or psychiatric symptoms and was off all his medication. His mother brought a sample of his handwriting, which had gone from illegible to normal, simply by getting his brain working again by getting his body in balance.
A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity for Real Reform...
This model of care is the basis for the type of medicine that must be at the center of healthcare reform. I live in the trenches as a practicing doctor, treating real people who are suffering from real problems.
These problems have real solutions, which are being overlooked -- solutions that hold the key to saving our healthcare system from self-destruction.
Functional or systems medicine needs to be the "Intel inside" that drives the type of medicine that is practiced as we create a new healthcare system.
Real healthcare reform is now possible in a perfect storm where the alignment of economic, scientific, and moral imperatives provides an opportunity for us as a nation to do well by doing good through fundamentally changing the type of medicine we practice.
It will require the collective imagination, intention, focus, and action by healthcare providers, consumers, industry, and policy makers. But we can do it, and we must do it now.
In the words of the ancient sage, Rabbi Hillel, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"
Now I'd like to hear from you...
What steps do you think will be necessary for successful healthcare reform?
How do you think healthcare reform will be achieved?
What do you think is the biggest obstacle we will face in reforming healthcare?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is the author of The UltraMind Solution. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.