Courting Wellness: Why Medicine Is Getting Healthier

After nearly a century of vilifying, discrediting and simply ignoring wellness, the medical community is at long last stepping outside the hallowed hallways of traditional medicine and embracing healthcare and healing strategies beyond the purely clinical.
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After nearly a century of vilifying, discrediting and simply ignoring wellness, the medical community is at long last stepping outside the hallowed hallways of traditional medicine and embracing healthcare and healing strategies beyond the purely clinical. Contributing to this long overdue shift is a rising and unsustainable national healthcare tab -- $2.7 trillion (nearly 18 percent of America's GDP!). In parallel, an increased awareness that preventable disease contributes more than $300 billion to our healthcare bill is bringing preventive care and wellness into the practical light of the bottom line.

After decades of growing pains, the sun, moon and stars are aligning for wellness stakeholders. Why now?

1) Follow the money trail: Alternative therapies now account for 11 percent of out-of-pocket consumer healthcare expenditures. Just as your local grocery store chain has added an organic foods aisle, it's no surprise to see brand-name healthcare facilities now including wellness among their healthcare offerings. The world-renowned Cleveland Clinic selected luminary patient advocate Dr. Michael Roizen to lead its Wellness Institute. Duke Medical Center recently opened the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, offering a wide array of treatments previously considered taboo by the medical community -- acupuncture, massage/bodywork and mindfulness-based stress reduction, among others. In short, wellness is big business and healthcare industry leaders are developing strategies to participate in this estimated $1-trillion global market.

2) More data, clinical success: While big medicine and big pharma have made it challenging for complementary and alternative treatments to gain respect, the wellness industry is increasing focused upon clinical outcomes for treatments that traditional practitioners once considered quackery. Hospitals both in the U.S. and abroad are documenting increased success rates where wellness and complementary strategies are deployed -- from cancer treatment to fertility procedures to post-operative cardiovascular care.

3) A glut of medicine: In the U.S. alone, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year onover-testing, over-treatment and over-prescribing. Increasingly patients are choosing massage and Pilates over a surgeon's hasty recommendation of surgery; meditation and other relaxation strategies over anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication; complementary and integrative treatments to support health during life-sapping cancer therapies. Medical facilities and doctors are slowly responding to negative media coverage, shifting consumer perception and new regulations that curtail excessive clinical testing and unnecessary procedures. If nature abhors a vacuum, wellness and prevention are helping fill the void.

4) Obamacare and workplace wellness: Wellness is cited 27 times in the Affordable Care Act, with financial incentives for employers offering wellness programs to employees. Healthcare providers, carriers and wellness stakeholders are keen to cash in on the millions.

5) Consumer demand: Slowly but surely, Americans are becoming more health-conscious. Many want to live long enough to see their grandchildren come into the world; others are more aware of the potentially dire financial consequences of preventable disease. In the U.S., tobacco consumption has been on a steady decline for nearly two decades. Similarly, consumption of fast foods and high-calorie soft drinks has significantly abated over the past five years, while vendors begin to court the health-conscious consumer with at least the promise of a more salubrious diet. Hospitals and doctors are following suit: some increasingly aware they can no longer remain purely in the "fix-it" business of treating symptoms and sickness but must play a more aggressive role in keeping patients well. When I recently asked one well-known hospital executive about the McDonald's in his facility's lobby, he ruefully replied, "That seemed like a good idea at the time. We've only got two years left on the lease."

6) Globalization of healthcare: In my experiences in the international healthcare community, I've encountered countless medical professionals who find the ethnocentric nomenclature around contemporary Western medicine amusing if not annoying. In the U.S. and EU, the term "alternative medicine" is carelessly used to denote treatments -- such as Ayurveda, acupuncture and homeopathy -- that have been practiced successfully for centuries on millions of patients in other countries. Think about what "alternative" might mean to a long-time practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The globalization of research, clinical trials and medical accreditation is forcing a corresponding change in perception within Western medical communities.

Although much about the future of the U.S. healthcare system remains uncertain, the momentum created by new research, unsustainable models and consumer market forces will continue to extend the role of prevention and wellness in Western healthcare. Lower costs and healthier patients are strong incentives, especially when considering the economic opportunities around providing wellness services to an aging and sedentary population. While meaningful change in healthcare can be glacial, the ship is steadily veering toward more sensible choices with improved outcomes.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Global Spa and Wellness Summit, in conjunction with Global Spa and Wellness Summit 2013 on October 5- 7 in New Delhi, India. For more information about The Global Spa and Wellness Summit, click here.