May 28, 2017—The following thoughts give an overview of my reasons for skepticism about Western, allopathic medicine and the paradigm it represents. I claim the overriding belief in external agents for healing or symptomatic relief ignores the basic dignity of the individuals in question and the “vitality” that keeps us going.
The body is a marvelous homeostatic instrument, for which health is the natural state. This understanding pervades Oriental medicine, which is based on the concept of “qi” (“chi”) or life force.
I’m an amateur student of Oriental medicine so can only describe it in general, simplified terms. Essentially, it holds that there is a continuum between spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical levels. Problems begin as spiritual. If not resolved at that level, the problems become increasingly “dense” until they show up in the physical body.
In Chinese medicine, the idea of qi underlies and informs the entire system. This sets Oriental medicine at odds with the Western, mechanistic viewpoint we Occidentals take for granted. With the advent of the industrial age, the “scientific method,” and the requirement for “objectively verifiable” evidence, we’ve come to rely on instrumentation and a cause-and-effect sequence for assessment and treatment of any given condition. The body is treated as though it’s a machine, with the resident human being largely a passive recipient of the diagnoses and treatments decided by the technician/physicians who administer them.
While the official stance of “science” receives almost religious devotion and some legitimate respect, it is exceedingly limited in what it can do. “Science,” which relies on measurable “proof” has yet to prove that life exists. Nor has it located the “mind,” although most believe the “mind” is in the brain. The scientific method relies on studies that theorize causes, then set up conditions that limit variables to one, to determine whether there’s a significant correlation between cause and effect.
My unorthodox approach to life, health, and medicine stems from a fundamental belief in the power of the life force. I call it “vitality,” but others may refer to “qi,” “quality of life” or use any number of terms to describe this battery that keeps us going.
Whether individuals survive physical death, and if so, in what capacity, is a question no one can answer, although religions and philosophers of all persuasions have tried. What is life, anyway? Is it a candle flame that can be extinguished? Is it an essence, like “qi” that joins the “qi” of the cosmos, to be re-born in another place and time?
I won’t try to answer these questions but raise them simply to note that a belief in life beyond death strongly influences how I live mine. Certainly others wrestle with the question, especially as they get older and wonder what lies ahead.
I became a psychiatrist partly to help make philosophy practical, but the profession—and Western medicine as a whole–is going in the opposite direction.
“How so?” a reasonable person may ask. The most obvious answer is that it devalues the most basic principles that keep us healthy or make us sick. Western medicine systematically undermines the individual’s faith in his or her own body’s self-correcting mechanisms. It pits mind against body, which is deemed untrustworthy, a thing to be feared, unreliable.
The intangibles that formerly distinguished psychiatry from other medical specialties, the “quality of life” issues—now take a back seat to “evidence-based medicine” and the vain attempt of psychiatrists to align with the more “scientific” practitioners.
The antidepressant Prozac (fluoxetine) was introduced in 1989, two years before I graduated from medical school. This began the separation of psychotherapy and other “talk therapy” from “medical management” of emotional problems. While other antidepressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety agents, and mood stabilizers had been on the market for decades, Prozac began the trend toward a raft of new, patented, drugs that could treat symptoms while ignoring the larger life pattern that led to the problems. “Talk therapy” was shifted to psychologists and social workers, with the move heavily supported by government and insurance reimbursement criteria.
Since that time, the avalanche of patented drugs, technologies, diagnostic tests, and other interventions has made the “health care industry” one of the most profitable sectors in the United States. Costs for the individual have skyrocketed, such that few can afford medical help without insurance. Now, the government has made insurance mandatory. No one seems to recognize that insurance does not equal health care. In fact, insurance impedes, rations, and delays health care, and it raises the price for everyone.
Medical care costs twice as much in the US as anywhere else. Medications are significantly more expensive. A continuing medical education article I read says medical error is now the third leading cause of death in the US, after cardiovascular events and cancer.
That medicine and psychiatry seem obsessed with finding or creating problems already puts patients at a disadvantage, in a defensive position. Psychiatrists don’t get reimbursed for “no diagnosis.” They must find or invent a diagnosis, a label, to justify the time they spend.
No wonder Oriental medicine has such appeal for me. Here, diagnosis is based on patterns of disharmony within the body and mind. The hands-on approach is individualized and personal. The patients and the practitioners are partners, with the belief in the treatment’s effectiveness–“the placebo effect” in Western terms—a desirable component. In short, it respects the dignity of the vital forces that medicine presumes to reinforce.
I hear people say that “health care is a right.” We also have a right to refuse health care, especially when it’s forced on us by hostile, predatory forces. We have the right to eat nutritious foods, life a balanced life, and keep stress levels low. We have the right to maintain our vitality and health they best way we know and to choose who and what to trust for help when we need it.
Beautifully thought out. Beautifully written.
Thank you, Helen, for reading and offering such supportive commentary.
As I see it, “health care” and “health insurance” are not synonymous. Health insurance is a capitalist mechanism whereby the individual or a family can fund his/her/their health care needs. Without good health, we cannot function at our optimum and, if left untreated, a serious medical problem could prevent us from caring for ourselves, our families, and even become non-productive members of society — those detestable “moochers.”
Without a healthy population – in mind and body – a country cannot provide for its needs and grow as a nation. For this reason, health care is considered a basic human right in democratic societies that collect taxes from its citizens. Is funding endless wars in distant lands of greater importance than the physical and mental well-being of our citizens?
Rosaliene, I could write several blogs in response to your comment, because you raise many interrelated issues. Perhaps the single best investment in health care would be to insure good sanitation and clean, potable water, which we supposedly have in the US. Places like Flint, Michigan have made me wonder about water quality. If we were to test water in more areas, we might be shocked at what we find. Bottled water is no substitute, because of the plastic that adds to the devastating buildup of environmental toxins. In a place like Savannah, drainage is crucial, but do you see anyone but me raising a stink about that? No. They’d rather dump malathion on all our heads to kill mosquitoes.
Americans are taught next to nothing about how to maintain health. No nutrition education, even up through the medical schools. Hospital cafeterias are nests of fast food franchises. Cardiovascular events are the leading cause of death, attributable largely to Americans’ sedentary, high-calorie-low-nutrient, over-stressed, over-stimulated, lifestyles. Cancer is second, probably related to the environmental toxins we are so busy dumping hither and yon.
My point is most health care should be happening long before anyone goes to the doctor, but there’s no pill for a healthy lifestyle.
It’s hard to determine when a medical problem becomes “serious,” and it’s a myth that early treatment is preventative. A main point of my blog is that the body self-corrects in numerous cases if given the latitude to do so. There are natural killer cells and internal factors that kill cancer cells every day, and proteins that keep bacteria and viruses under control, if the body is not depleted.
If we want a healthier population, it behooves us to emphasize health maintenance education in the general public and support it with good public health infrastructure. Doctors are over-rated, medications are over-rated, and hospitals should be a last resort.
Totally agree with all the points your raise.
I anticipated that you would, based on previous exchanges. You have inspired me to think ever more deeply about what “health care” means. More to come . . .
And don’t get me started on American wastefulness, the fact that our landfills are overflowing and leaching into groundwater, and that the EPA allows industry to dump waste into the aquifers.
Holistic health makes so much sense in my view, yet many do not connect the dots between how they live and the ailments they suffer. It does seem like the pharmaceutical industry gets richer as the population gets sicker.
Gail, it’s a multi-faceted problem, but I believe more people are waking up. Ultimately, health is an individual issue, because nobody feels your pain like you do. When people realize they can be their own best healers, maybe we’ll see a “healthy” revolution in consciousness.
I haven’t taken a prescription in 10 years or so. My husband just had knee replacement so he is taking a bit but weening off well. He manages most of his arthritis though natural means and by being careful about balancing his activity. We also stay away from prepared foods and eating out. I believe in your positions when it comes to western medicine. At my work, there is a big push and rewards for meeting health goals. That has helped me feel justified in taking a long walk every lunch and getting up to walk every hour. It makes a big difference! If universal health care in the US can accomplish really making people healthy (not just accessing doctors) I’d be all for it.
Bonsai, Thanks for the feedback. Responses like yours always help stimulate further and deeper thought. If you have a desk job, I would also recommend stretching neck and shoulders frequently, too.
I’ve enjoyed your blogs about cooking, so know you have healthier eating habits than most Americans. I’m convinced lifestyle and attitude affect health (and vitality) more than just about anything,
Excellent article! “Western medicine systematically undermines the individual’s faith in his or her own body’s self-correcting mechanisms”.. well said!
Thank you. I will have a lot more to way about Western medicine, especially since it seems to be causing more disability and disease than it cures.
I enjoy your posts and will look out for them. 🙂