The Western medical paradigm is great for curing complex problems so long as the complexity leads, ultimately, to simplicity. In general, it seeks to identify the microscopic cause of a macroscopic problem and then excise that cause or change it in some way. The tools developed through biomedical research have led to advances that would look like miracles to folks living 100 years ago: antibiotics for bacterial infections, vaccines that transformed last century’s blights into blips on the epidemiological radar screens of today, and surgical techniques that bring heart attack patients back from the brink of death. Funny enough, these sorts of problems, which Western medicine is so good at addressing, are not what bring most people to their doctors .
Here is a startling observation: the top six ailments for which people see their primary care physician (PCP) are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, back pain, anxiety, and obesity (http://www.practicefusion.com/ehrbloggers/2011/02/25-most-common-diagnoses.html), all chronic, systemic problems for which, thus far, biomedical research has not been able to identify a solitary microscopic cause. They are nonlinear, involving feedback loops of behavior, hormones, neurotransmitters, responsibilities at work, relationships with family members, and cultural pressures, just to name a few of the ingredients that are cause and symptom, illness and cure.
Western biomedicine has not created tools that satisfactorily support people through these problems. In contrast, some other medical paradigms look at problems systemically; they do not reduce them to a microscopic cause, but instead find a way to create space in the human system to allow healing to take place. The numbers are in: thousands of years of Chinese medical practices have been vindicated by western scientific methods as well. Many alternative and complementary therapies have been shown to work as well as, if not better than, the narrowly-focused drugs that Western biomedicine provides for these problems. Chiropractic, massage therapy, yoga, social work, and mindfulness-based stress reduction, to name a few, provide services that allow people to heal.
You’re better off going to your MD for an infection, heart attack, broken bone, or paralyzing pain. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans feeling like you can’t handle the little ups and downs of life, or your doctor has told you repeatedly that you have a constellation of risk factors for heart disease and now you need to change your lifestyle, I suggest there are tools outside the Western biomedical box that our system and culture of health must consider to support a population full of vitality. Most MDs are ill-equipped to help you with the seriously challenging process of finding space and attention to do the work of changing habits that have taken a life-time to build.
In this blog, I want to explore with you what does work well for these systemic problems, and I’m hoping you’ll explore with me how we can change the system and promote the use of paradigms that work. Let practitioners within each modality work within their paradigm, while being aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Our lives and health choices are wrapped up not just in the many factors that contribute to disease, but also in the economics of making choices to be healthier. So in this blog I want to look to health insurance and practices in other countries that utilize varying degrees of non-western medicine, for example China and the UK. I want to know where we are today. How much do today’s PCPs know about complementary and alternative health practices and their uses? How do insurance plans shape people’s treatment choices? I will share with you quantitative research, investigative journalism, and stories of people’s lives. Hop on the boat and share this journey with me!