On America’s Evolution toward Integrative Medicine
by Andrea Schensky Williams
Natural Awakenings had the opportunity to pose progressive healthcare-related questions to Dr. Andrew Weil, world-renowned author, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and clinical professor of internal medicine at the University of Arizona on the eve of the sixth biennial Symposium of Integrative Medicine Professionals, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was be the keynote speaker.
You frequently speak to the topic of integrative health and happiness. How does your book, Spontaneous Happiness, reflect that?
For a long time, I have wanted to see an integrative movement start in psychology and psychiatry. It is another field that has become dependent on drugs and is not functioning all that well to help people. There are so many more things that people need to know about maintaining emotional wellness, I think the wisdom of taking an integrative approach here is obvious.
Your presentation will take place soon after the recent passing f actor and comedian Robin Williams, which might bring about a more informed awareness of mental health. Why do you think there is such an increase in the incidence of depression?
There are many reasons for it, including changes in diet and a breakdown in communities, which has greatly increased social isolation and disconnection from nature. Another factor is the rise in information technology, all the new media. Plus, pharmaceutical companies have been highly successful in convincing people that ordinary states of sadness are matters of unbalanced brain chemistry that need to be treated with medication.
With diet being such a major component in affecting our emotional state of mind, what role does an anti-inflammatory diet play?
There is a new body of research linking inflammation with depression that I find fascinating. The fact that the mainstream diet promotes inflammation is why I believe there may be a dietary correlation with the rise of depression in our population.
If someone suffers from depression, would you say the steps recommended in Spontaneous Happiness are a proactive approach or an addition to management through medication?
I share information about how to wean off medication. I would say the book is primary; for people with mild-to-moderate depression, I would follow the information there first. For people with severe depression, it may be necessary to give antidepressant drugs, but I think that they should be used for a limited period, a maximum of one year. You should then be working to find other ways to manage the depression. There is specific information about what to do if you are on medication and how to wean off of it carefully and start these other methods.
Do you feel that the increase in diabetes in the U.S., particularly its onset in early childhood, is another major problem?
Yes, it is a big concern. I think this is mostly due to the way we have changed the food we eat; diet is a hugely influencing factor, especially the greatly increased consumption of sugar, sweetened beverages and products made with flour and refined carbohydrates.
How can integrative medicine lower Americans’ healthcare costs?
Integrative medicine can help reduce costs in two ways. First, by shifting the focus of health care onto health promotion and prevention, rather than disease management. Most of the diseases we are trying to manage today are lifestyle-related. This is where integrative medicine shines. Second, by bringing into the mainstream treatments that are not dependent on expensive technology, and I include pharmaceutical drugs in this category.
I think we are going to be forced to change our dysfunctional approach by economic necessity, because the current healthcare system is not sustainable. Integrative medicine is in a perfect position to do that because of its emphasis on lifestyle medicine. Integrative medicine is also teaching healthcare practitioners to use inexpensive, low-tech methods of managing common diseases. Both economic drivers will help reshape mainstream medicine.
What influence can the public have in supporting such a shift?
Our dysfunctional healthcare system is generating rivers of money flowing into very few pockets. Those are the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies, medical devices manufacturers and big insurers; interests that control legislators. So, I do not think any real change is going to come from the government. The only real change will come from a grassroots movement to change the politics of all of this.
Demand that insurers cover the treatments you want. Seek out integrative practitioners. Tell health practitioners you work with that integrative education is available and urge them to get up to speed in those areas. Raise your own awareness of the extent that the powerful lobbies now influence the system and why we need to see a sweeping political change.
You offer several programs through the University of Arizona such as a four-year degree, a two-year fellowship for medical doctors and programs for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. What are the benefits of adding integrative medicine to one’s practice?
I think it’s what patients want and it makes the practice of medicine much more enjoyable. Many practitioners realize that they do not have the knowledge their patients want; for instance, informed counsel about diet or uses of alternative medication. This is a way they can gain knowledge they did not get in their conventional medical training. We have graduated more than 1,000 physicians over 10 years, supporting a robust and growing community of like-minded practitioners that stay in touch and support each other.
We are eventually hoping that we can get integrative training into all residencies. Whether you go to a dermatologist, pediatrician, gastroenterologist or psychiatrist, that doctor will have had basic training in nutrition, mind/body interactions, herbal medicine and all the rest that is now left out. We have also begun a program in lifestyle medicine that is open to all kinds of practitioners, from registered dietitians to psychologists.
What reforms would you like to see in the current U.S. healthcare system?
We need changed priorities for reimbursement that favors integrative medicine. At the moment, we happily pay for drugs and tests. We do not pay for a doctor to sit with and counsel a person about diet or teach them breathing exercises. I would like to see a new kind of institution come into being that I call a healing center, where people could go for lifestyle education and management of common illnesses—somewhere between a spa and a clinic. Stays in these would be reimbursed by insurance, similar to how it is done in Europe. Beyond that, I think it is unconscionable that the richest nation on Earth cannot provide basic coverage to all of its citizens.
Dr. Andrew Weil will be spearheading the 12th annual Nutrition & Health Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 4 through 6, 2015. Learn more about integrative medicine at IntegrativeMedicine.Arizona.edu and DrWeil.com.
Andrea Schensky Williams is the publisher of Natural Awakenings of Northern New Mexico.