When my oldest son was 7 years old, I had to take him to the doctor for something potentially serious. On our way to the appointment, I felt sick to my stomach from anxiety. I wasn't nervous about my son's condition per se; rather, I was nervous about the doctor's response to it. What would he prescribe? I knew the potential chain reaction of consequences of heading down this path, and I did not want to subject my son to it.
I was a practicing conventional medicine doctor, but apparently when it came to my own family, I was frightened of the very medicine I administered to others. This understanding was a pivotal a-ha moment. Suddenly it was clear to me that the American health care system was broken and that I needed to stop being a cog in its wheel.
Properly trained at elite medical institutions, I was well-versed in and a believer of the reductionist model of health care: Identify the problems and prescribe the solutions, which for the most part came in neat packages, mostly pill bottles -- the contents produced in sterile facilities in Europe, Asia, and South America. These pills, of course, were the better of two alternatives, the other being to go into a procedure room, get sedated with psychoactive substances that numbed the senses, and remove the problem outright.
We all know how it works, but really, it doesn't work, at least not for the overwhelming majority of our chronic illnesses. In my own medical practice, over the course of 15 years before my son's illness, I had a gnawing sense that something was wrong. Unfamiliar with any medical alternatives, however, and psychologically conditioned by conventional medical culture, I dismissed my misgivings.
In the years following the wakeup call of my son's illness, I came to learn that many of my colleagues had a similar awakening at one time or another, while caring for a family member or for themselves. In these cases, my colleagues resisted the very treatments they routinely administered to others, because they understood the limitations of these "remedies." In fact, the paradox appears to be fairly common, well beyond the confines of my professional and social circles. Across the country, those of us in the medical community routinely joke about how bad doctors are as patients -- waiting too long to get treatment, resisting the advice of their own doctors, and refusing to take medications and other treatments.
This paradox is the symptom of a serious problem: The reductionist paradigm of conventional medicine has attempted to simplify one of the most complex systems imaginable -- the human being. The paradigm is breaking apart, as its limitations and drawbacks increasingly brought to light. Unfortunately, it seems that only when we, as doctors, are forced to confront this reality, for our loved ones and ourselves, will we come face to face with the pitfalls of the system in which we participate. Only then will we begin looking for alternatives and supporting our patients in doing the same.
We must keep in mind, of course, that conventional medicine is well-intended and that numerous aspects are beneficial. Most notably, for an acute, life-threatening emergency, we just can't beat it. When someone has a heart attack, brain hemorrhage, or ruptured appendix, it is not the time for a doctor-patient consult on nutrition, meditation, and exercise. I am in no way suggesting that we through the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly, there are critical medical interventions that we want to keep in play. We just need to think straight and accept that quick fixes do not usually work for complicated and chronic medical ailments. In addition, they typically do not have a lasting effect on the psycho-emotional sense of wellness that fundamentally determines the quality of our lives.
A critical body of knowledge is not taught in medical schools, regarding how to achieve and sustain optimal health without the use of pills or procedures. You probably feel this shortcoming when you question your doctor's prescription. With a limited set of tools in the medical toolbox, a doctor cannot offer diversity and flexibility in her or his approach -- something that many patients desperately need.
Doctors are people too, and we equally suffer from our own limitations, when it comes to our loved ones and ourselves. My hope is that as more and more physicians are asked to consider the alternatives that our patients request, we too will consider these alternatives more seriously. And so a new medical paradigm might evolve further and find its way more deeply into the mainstream -- a paradigm that is truly holistic and integrative, that reconnects the experience of living with the goal of keeping the body healthy. Indeed, the future of medicine rests in the hands of doctors and patients alike, each of us taking an honest look at and becoming vocal about the limitations as well as the strengths of conventional medicine. Together we can round out healthcare, providing the best medical therapies that each modality has to offer.