Integrative Medicine on Capitol Hill

On Thursday, the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing called, Integrative Care: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation to assess how complementary medicine will be incorporated into President Obama’s challenge for Congress to pass health care reform in 2009. Barbara Milkulski (D), Maryland and Tom Harkin (D), Iowa chaired the committee that invited a distinguished panel of famous complementary practitioners to report their findings from field work.

The proceedings can be see in their entirety here:

Dr. Mehmet C. Oz, Director, Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY was the first speaker (minutes 27-33). His speech to the committee was based upon the idea of movements where Oz advocated having patients become their own advocates in the health care system. His proposal included four points:

  • 1. Create a Smart Patient Movement, where people learn how to take of themselves before needing medical intervention
  • 2. Massively upgrade the information systems surrounding health care to be upgraded to systems like Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health – where patients store their medical records for all types of health professionals to see.
  • 3. Establish a ‘culture of wellness’ – defined as giving patients a more total platter of options in how they want to be healed. Physicians would be joined by ‘Health Coaches’ – people like physical therapists, social workers and acupuncturists – who help people become healthier before they need reactionary, Western medicine.
  • 4. Expand his ‘Health Corps Movement’ – a program is based upon the concepts of Peace Corps, whereby passionate young adults tutor their peers, in schools, on becoming more healthy.

Following Dr. Oz was Dr. Mark Hyman, Founder and Medical Director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA – (watch minutes 68-74 in the video).

Dr. Hyman

Dr. Hyman

Hyman’s major point was an affront to most of the medical community – that the entire system and approach to modern disease is completely wrong. Because most of the health crises in American revolve around chronic diseases, the reactionary, allopathic model of medicine is outdated. He wants a system that proactively addresses the debilitating symptoms of chronic disease before they ever form. From his speech [emphasis mine]:

We must address the underlying causes of illness and chronic disease. If we, give the wrong type of care, we will simply be doing the wrong thing – better. [We need to change not] only the way we do medicine but the medicine we do. This new paradigm of functional medicine is a system of personalized, patient-centered care based on how our environment and lifestyle choices impact on our genes to create imbalances in our genes and biologic systems….It is the best solution to our health care system.”

Continuing with Dr. Oz’s point, Dr. Hyman hammered on the point of the need for health coaches to assist doctors in creating a healthy environment. He outlined three major initiatives he wanted to see in Obama’s upcoming health reform act:

  • 1. A radical shift in public investment towards training and research facilities that proactively address the needs of chronic disease, with the US creating a federal training center.
  • 2. Expand already existing and proven functional medicine projects, compromised of doctors and other health professionals, that demonstrate a new model of care.
  • 3. Create a White House cabinet position that coordinates all of these functions.

Next up was Dr. Dean Ornish, Founder and President, Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, CA (minutes 78-82) who mainly reinforced the points made by earlier speakers, adding that the systems he has implemented show impressive cost reductions. He stated that 75-80% of all medical costs are now related to chronic diseases – heart disease, obesity, diabetes – and that he was able to eliminate almost 95% of those costs with functional medicine approaches.

Dr. Weil

Dr. Weil

Finally, Dr. Andy Weil, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, Vail, AZ (minutes 82 – 92) turned his focus onto why medical costs are so high in America. He made the point that our high tech medical system costs so much that there is no possible way to treat the numbers of sick people present without a different approach. He advocated low, very low tech medicine – simple breathing techniques and laughing – as examples of therapies he uses on a regular basis. He was adamant on changing the culture around alternative therapies with proper education.

Thoughts…

The Q&A afterwords between the doctors and senators involved the nagging question of how to make these changes happen. It was distressing to see just how little of an idea this important regulatory body had in terms of what they should be doing to improve health. Consistently, throughout this hearing, you would see the panel of health professionals imploring the senators to use the doctors’ collective talents.

But it strikes us as so odd that – as these doctors talked with the exact group responsible for implementing these policies – yet none of the senators take notes or have drafts of the necessary legislation on hand to amend with new ideas. All of this genius is sitting before them, unloading mountains of brilliant – and often proven – ideas as these legislators just sit and watch when it is they who have the responsibility to act on this information.

Hello?  Is anybody home?  Oh...you are busy with lobbyists.  Sorry to interrupt.

Hello? Is anybody home? Oh...you are busy with lobbyists. Sorry to interrupt.

Each one of these CAM advocates made the case for prevention and better information preventing diseases before they happen, and they did it eloquently. Each outlined a path to this new world of health care, demonstrating the numbers and how this should be the way forward. They made concrete recommendations – a White House level voice for wellness, re-educating health professionals at medical schools, implementing health coaches and expanding the Health Corps – that could have immediate effects. Dr. Hyman’s presentation was one of the best speeches on the subject we have ever heard.

Seeing as this conference was focused on helping craft the complementary medicine portion of health care reform, it is regrettable, if not inexcusable, that these senators – on the health subcommittee no less – could not even start to show how they will implement the wisdom bestowed upon them at this hearing. The time for discussing these issues has long passed and action is urgently needed. Functional medicine is used by millions every day but the American system of medicine discourages its use at every turn. It is our hope a few of the people on the government’s side watching this presentation could synthesize just 1% of what was being said to them and craft it into meaningful policy.

Read each presenter’s official submitted statements to the committee (all .pdf):

-->