Over the past century, conventional medicine has made extraordinary advances in fighting disease and extending life. Thanks to pharmaceutical and surgical interventions, supported by a vast array of hi-tech gadgets, we are living longer than ever and surviving the most horrific accidents and ailments. As noted by Tieraona LowDog, MD, Fellowship Director at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM), in our recent interview, "I think if we envisioned waking up tomorrow, and there were no hospitals, no ambulances, no surgical suites, no prescription drugs, no doctors, etc., I think we'd envision a world that would be much worse off than it is today."
Side by side with these appreciations of conventional medicine is the growing concern that by focusing exclusively on the body; by fighting disease instead of supporting a whole person; by viewing technology and hard data (like heart rate and blood pressure) as the definitive measurement of "health;" and by operating reactively instead of proactively - i.e., waiting for disease to strike - conventional medicine has lost the forest for the trees.
In other words, we have rejected the wisdom of ancient medicine, failing to recognize the inter-connected web not only between body, mind, and spirit, but also between individual, community, and planet. And we are paying the price. As noted by Joseph Pizzorno, ND, founding president of Bastyr Unviersity, in our recent interview, environmental toxins are "the primary cause of disease in the Western world," and our carelessness with nature otherwise has led to a litany of health problems, including foods "that don't have nutrients anymore."
Naturopathic medicine, integrative medicine, and most recently, functional medicine have attempted to revise the tenants of Western medicine, in a way that coalesces the intelligence and strength of each system. Some healthcare leaders, however, question whether these attempts are foolhardy.
Much of "what's wrong with medicine today," said Leo Galland, MD, Director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine, in our recent interview, is the "disease theory of illness, which is what conventional medicine is organized around. It's the idea that people get sick, because they get a disease. So the question becomes, 'OK, what is the disease that you have?' And the treatment then is the treatment of the disease, and the way that evidence is evaluated is, 'Treatment helps the disease.'"
James Maskell, host of the Evolution of Medicine summit, took this thinking one step further, in our recent interview, postulating that the reason Western medicine is slow to incorporate more holistic models is that the medical structures needed for acute disease and chronic disease are "completely opposite."
"The [Western] medical system is built on reactivity," he elaborated. "Something happens, and we take action to solve that problem, which makes total sense in acute disease. With chronic disease, it makes no sense. You have to be proactive." What therefore is required, he concluded, is not the evolution of medicine, but the revolution of medicine - allowing conventional medicine to continue doing what it does well, and providing new options based on new paradigms.
The revolution in fact seems to be underway in numerous healthcare spaces. When LowDog was approached about leading the AIHM fellowship, for example, the idea was to train doctors and nurse practitioners in more holistic options. LowDog rejected that idea, instead offering her vision of truly integrated medicine, which AIHM has since implemented. "We've done such good work helping doctors learn more and think more broadly about health and medicine and wellness," LowDog recalled advising the AIHM team, "but that is never going to change the trajectory of what's happening in this nation, let alone globally."
Medicine in its fullness, LowDog passionately asserted, includes not only doctors, but also "clergies, pharmacists, dentists, massage therapists, nurses, shamans, mothers...We have to learn to work together, to co-collaborate with patients and refer to one another and work together in teams." A truly integrated field of medicine, LowDog continued, functions much like a basketball team, where everyone is assigned the role for which they are most uniquely qualified and skilled. "It's only by bringing everybody whose strengths fit the position they're playing that we're really going to be able to save dollars, improve lives, and improve people's quality of life," she emphasized.
To help move this revolution along, Maskell and other tech-savvy individuals, such as Jeff Arnold - CEO of Sharecare and founder of WebMD - are using the internet, smart phones, and other technology, to facilitate a more community-minded form of medicine. Whereas Maskell focuses on cultivating relationships between healthcare practitioners, in the interest of building strong medical teams, Arnold focuses on increasing self-awareness and enhancing the personal relationships of consumers, in the interest of optimizing one's health.
Better relationships result in better health, Arnold emphasized in our interview, and better health results in better relationships. "How do those two constantly self-reinforce?" he asked. The key, he continued, is generating a hyper-awareness among consumers, so that they volunteer to participate in making themselves the healthiest they can be.
To this end, Sharecare features smartphone apps that gather comprehensive data about users and their environments, throughout each day - physical activity, sleep, weather, conversations, music, location, and more - translating all this data into concrete information about what causes the user to relax or feel stressed, respectively. In other words, the apps track and offer real-time biofeedback on what activates a user's sympathetic nervous system (the fight/flight mode in which our bodies respond as if we are being chased by a lion), and parasympathetic nervous system (the rest/digest mode in which our bodies activate the healing response mechanism and release a bio-chemical cascade of wellness throughout our system).
Given that the frantic pace of today's society has most of us in a state of sympathetic overdrive, or chronic stress, through which our fight/flight response is locked in the "on" position, and given that chronic stress is a leading contributor to the gamut of health concerns, from heart disease to obesity to cancer, it is an incredible development that we now have our fingertips definitive knowledge of what agitates us and what soothes, and by extension, what makes us sick and what makes us well.
Coupled with guidance on how to understand and act on this information, we all can more easily take proactive steps to live the healthiest lives possible, gravitating toward what takes us to our "happy place" in each of the seven spokes of the Slow Medicine Wheel of Health - our physical body; our mental-emotional state; our relationships to each other, to nature, and to the Divine; our participation in community; and our life's purpose. Indeed, we need something this comprehensive and revolutionary. Not only are there staggering levels of chronic illness today, but conventional medicine is limited in responding to it, and furthermore has proven resistant to providing more holistic approaches to managing it.
By contrast, at the core of all the innovative measures cited above, from the educational to the technical, is an expanded definition of health and enhanced tools for optimizing it: By taking a whole-being/whole-life approach to wellness; by recognizing the many kinds of doctors and healers in our midst; by providing tools to unify these practitioners in collaborative teams; and by providing tools for consumers to access these teams, while also monitoring their own health on a daily basis, we truly do have the potential not only to evolve medicine, but to revolutionize it.