Interview with Andrew Weil
Published On November 14, 2010
By Bryce Wylde HD, RNC
Health care in North America requires huge reform. Undoubtedly, things are moving and shaking in the world of health care, but these changes are not necessarily moving in the right direction, nor are they changing quickly enough. Generally, the public is aware of the necessity to have a more effective health-care system in place, but the powers that be are not strategizing to implement a new system anytime soon. Where there seems to be a remarkable gain in general interest on the topic of wellness and preventive medicine, little of this notion is being prescribed by your family doctor.
There is a lot of good information out there when it comes to staying healthy. But, Im not sure that most North Americans really know what to do with such an abundance of data: an unfortunate fact that may be the result of information overload. My observation is that when it comes to prevention of disease and improving ones health and well-being, most complementary or alternative approaches are too quickly dismissed out of hand. If the system were to borrow from available evidence-based knowledge within complementary alternative medicine as well as other forms of safe, effective and non-conventional medicine and then firmly set this wisdom within the mainstream, eventually the change that is needed for full and effective health-care reform would ensue.
The sheer degree of public interest for self-help is evident, especially so with the boom of social media. We have quickly caught on to the idea - good or bad - that we can play doctor and try and self-diagnose using available online search engines. And were doing this more and more; in part because many family doctors simply dont spend the necessary time to learn more about our true underlying condition or how to prevent a reoccurrence.
The allure of the search engine is exemplified by the fact that we can play epidemiologist in our spare time and take a pretty accurate guess at where the next flu epidemic will hit simply by logging on to Googles Flu Trends, which uses aggregated search data to estimate flu activity.
However, we generally shouldnt trust the Internet when it comes to our health concerns. Lets be reminded that no matter how big the Internet is, it is merely a database often riddled with inaccurate information. When we should be sitting with our family doctor to discuss a proposed wellness plan, too many are in consult with Dr. Facebook or Nurse Twitter. So, why is that? Many people feel that their underlying reasons never get addressed. God forbid you talk about more than one part of your body, more than a single organ, or delve into more than one issue when there is merely seven minutes allocated to the appointment time. Who can blame people for going online then?
I have been following Dr. Andrew Weil, MD closely for more than 20 years. He is known to acknowledge and write extensively on the topics of diet and lifestyle, natural medicine, sensible supplementation programs, and effective breathing and meditation techniques. Dr. Weils view of a better health-care system includes an integrative approach where healing-oriented medicine takes the whole person into account (body, mind and spirit). Integrative medicine, in Dr. Weils view, would include all aspects of diet and lifestyle emphasizing the therapeutic relationship between patient and health-care practitioner, while making use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.
In fact, Dr. Weil is probably the major impetus that I am a practitioner in the field of natural medicine. Due to his books and teachings, my mother was able to apply natural methods of healing along with an effective approach to prevention and well-being with my two sisters and me. This lifestyle resulted in far fewer days off school and significantly decreased trips to the doctors office.
Not long ago, I proudly approached Dr. Weil to let him know I had finished my first book, The Antioxidant Prescription: How to Use the Power of Antioxidants to Prevent Disease and Stay Healthy for Life. Much of it was inspired by what I had learned through Dr. Weil. We have had discussions where he didnt agree with every point I made in my book, but in the end he was gracious enough to give me a cover endorsement. More recently, I decided to ask Dr. Weil to weigh in on this topic of health care in North America. This is how our conversation went...
Bryce: When it comes to a collective consciousness around the topic of good health, in North America it seems we are witnessing a paradigm shift. We are becoming increasingly aware about the need for a wellness-based approach to health care versus a triage-, resuscitation- and sickness-based model of health care.
North Americans are seeking preventive concepts, alternatives and complementary approaches to their health. But regardless of any keen interest from the public to get healthier, the obesity crisis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are all testament to our very poor state of health. Since poor diet is so obviously correlated to these problems and where good nutrition may solve a lot of North Americans health problems, it is frustrating that on the one hand were told to eat more fruits and vegetable, yet on the other hand these commodities are the most expensive items in the grocery stores. Refined, packaged, and processed foods are the cheapest!
The question to you, Dr. Weil, is how does the current health-care system initiate and implement the tremendous need for change required to see North Americans healthy again?
Dr. Weil: The current health-care system is the problem, so we have to be in charge of initiating and implementing needed change both individually and systemically.
First we need a good understanding of what health is. Health is not simply the absence of disease — it is best defined as a positive state of dynamic balance in which a person functions well and interacts with their environment smoothly and efficiently. Once embraced, this definition leads to the recognition that each of us is responsible for supporting our own unique and innate capacity for healing. Doctors can help, of course, through the creation of a healing partnership and guidance, but the primary responsibility for maintaining optimal health rests with the individual. You cant afford to get sick, so you have to learn how to make the best dietary and lifestyle choices that can help keep you healthy.
As far as revitalizing our health-care system, there are a number of changes that we can demand immediately, as outlined in my book, Why Our Health Matters: A Vision of Medicine That Can Transform Our Future, including:
- The creation of a new branch at the National Institute of Health to be called the National Institute of Health and Healing, where research into the natural healing power of human beings is promoted and funded. After all, the body has an amazing capacity to defend itself from harm, to regenerate some damaged tissues, and to adapt to injury and loss. We need to honour and better understand these processes in order to develop less invasive and less expensive therapies that effectively utilize the bodys healing capacity instead of ignoring it.
- The creation of an Office of Health Promotion within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where a renewed emphasis on preventing illness and optimizing health can be brought to bear for our citizens. We need to invest real dollars and ingenuity in educating people about nutrition, exercise and other healthy activities. Its the single most effective way to defeat the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and conditions that lead to life-threatening diseases.
- The institution of a mandate that insurers cover health promotion and integrative care so that people can learn directly from their health professionals how best to prevent disease, and participate in healthy pursuits such as yoga and the appropriate use of vitamins and supplements. Reimbursing people for these types of activities will help keep them healthy and drive down health-care costs related to the treatment of preventable serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- The establishment of a Department of Health Education within the U.S. Department of Education so that nutrition, diet, and exercise become an integrated part of every childs education early and throughout their schooling in ways that are consistent and innovative.
In addition, the government needs to make it easier for us to make healthy diet and lifestyle choices by subsidizing the healthiest options.
Bryce: Apart from the government subsidizing healthy options, it would also make sense to put a harness on mainstream media. These days, TV and other mainstream media outlets influence so much of our decision-making. (I get to see this first hand as a host of a TV talk show about health and wellness). I think that the government needs to force a censorship on unhealthy commercials like they do on cigarette packages, warnings such as over-consumption of Twinkies may lead to diabetes. It disturbs me to the core when I see multi-coloured, sugar-coated cereals enticing young minds between cartoons while adults delude themselves by watching commercials about happy, healthy people eating a dinner of burgers and fries with their young children in a fast food restaurant. However, you are absolutely right - the onus is mainly on us as individuals and as parents to distance ourselves from the toxic messaging and ensure censorship for our young children. But, an even scarier example I can think of is how the pharmaceutical companies are allowed to promote their drugs this way.
Dr Weil, in your opinion, how can we lobby the media regulatory boards to stop drug companies from advertising their perverted ask for this drug by name campaigns in the media?
Dr. Weil: The mainstream marketing of pharmaceuticals to the public undermines the doctor-patient relationship, often containing misleading information and drives the overuse of drug therapy by suggesting that pills can cure all ills. In the industrialized world, only the U.S. and New Zealand permit direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs. The free market has failed us here.
We need to vigorously lobby our state and local representatives to institute an immediate ban on this type of advertising. As individuals we need to make sure not to become party to the madness - dont ask your doctors for the medications youve seen advertised.
Bryce: Great advice. Once again, we all have to wake up and take more of the responsibility. But whether we spend our dollars on nutritious food or fast food, vitamins or drugs, affordability of health care is always a central issue. If the choice is nutritious food and vitamins, then perhaps we dont get sick nearly as often and require far less intervention, but the cost of living goes up. If our choice is fast food and later in life comes the need for drug intervention to reduce a high cholesterol level or require a heart bypass surgery, for example, then we burden the system tremendously. I think most people get that. But, if we are to see a real change happen, we need to effectively exchange a pay for intervention to a pay for prevention model.
So, Dr. Weil, how do we convince people to see their doctor before they get sick? How do we convince doctors to sit with their patients long enough to discuss preventive measures? Furthermore, when will available science like gene screening (to perhaps tailor an individualized nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle program) enter a mainstream approach?
Dr. Weil: The current system of health care in the U.S. is ineffective at promoting the health of its citizens, far too expensive and unsustainable. The health-care debate has focused primarily on insurance reform and accessibility, but discussion on the content of optimal health care has yet to begin in earnest. Many experts have weighed in, but I believe that integrative medicine, with its emphasis on diet and lifestyle, disease prevention and health promotion, is the only practical way to transform our health-care system and bring lower-cost, health-enhancing treatments into the mainstream for all to benefit from.
Integrative medicine emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between patient and health-care practitioner, and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative. Patients will come to see their doctors even when healthy if they understand that maintaining good health is uniquely their own responsibility and that the integrative doctor is their partner on the journey. On the physicians end, my colleagues at The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine (AzCIM) and I are working to ensure that doctors of the future will recognize their primary role to be supporting the optimal functioning of their patients innate healing systems, not the management of disease. They will do this by focusing on the individual nature of patients, appropriately using inexpensive and non-invasive means like diet and lifestyle changes first, to both prevent and treat the root causes of disease, resorting to invasive and drug therapies to treat illness and suppress symptoms only when absolutely necessary.
Great progress has been made with genetic testing and its promise is even greater, but genetic testing is a complex issue and far from a straightforward proposition. A significant amount of work still needs to be done before these tests can be credibly used to create individualized healthy lifestyle programs.
Bryce: It seems these days that if you ask a medical doctor to treat you without a prescription drug, then they are stumped. How do we educate them to alter their quick-to-prescribe approach?