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Natural Awakenings Boston

Dr. Andrew Weil on America's Evolution Into Integrative Medicine

Dec 23, 2014 12:12PM ● By Andrea Schensky Williams

Andrew Weil, M.D., is author, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and clinical professor of internal medicine at the University of Arizona. The Center is a leading effort in the world to develop a comprehensive curriculum in integrative medicine. Graduates serve as directors of integrative medicine programs around the United States, and through its Fellowship, the Center is now training doctors and nurse practitioners around the world.

You frequently speak to the topic of integrative health and happiness. How does your book, Spontaneous Happiness, reflect that?

For a long time, I’ve wanted to see an integrative movement start in psychology and psychiatry. It’s another field that has become dependent on drugs and is not functioning all that well to help people. There are so many more things that people need to know about maintaining emotional wellness, I think the wisdom of taking an integrative approach here is obvious.

The recent passing of Robin Williams may have brought about a new awareness of mental health. Why do you think there is such an increase in the incidence of depression?

There are many reasons for it, including changes in diet and a breakdown in communities, which has greatly increased social isolation and disconnection from nature. Another factor is the rise in information technology, all the new media. Plus, pharmaceutical companies have been highly successful in convincing people that ordinary states of sadness are matters of unbalanced brain chemistry that need to be treated with medication.

With diet being such a major component in affecting our emotional state of mind, what role does an anti-inflammatory diet play?

There is a new body of research linking inflammation with depression that I find fascinating. The fact that the mainstream diet promotes inflammation is why I believe there may be a dietary correlation with the rise of depression in our population.

 How can integrative medicine lower Americans’ healthcare costs?

 Integrative medicine can help reduce costs in two ways. First, by shifting the focus of health care onto health promotion and prevention, rather than disease management. Most of the dis-eases we are trying to manage today are lifestyle-related. This is where integrative medicine shines. Second, by bringing into the mainstream treatments that are not dependent on expensive technology, and I include pharmaceutical drugs in this category.

I think we’re going to be forced to change our dysfunctional approach by economic necessity, because the current healthcare system is not sustainable. Integrative medicine is in a perfect position to do that because of its emphasis on lifestyle medicine. Integrative medicine is also teaching healthcare practitioners to use inexpensive, low-tech methods of managing common diseases. Both economic drivers will help reshape mainstream medicine.

What influence can the public have in supporting such a shift?

 Our dysfunctional healthcare system is generating rivers of money flowing into very few pockets. Those are the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies, medical devices manufacturers and big insurers; interests that control legislators. So, I don’t think any real change is going to come from the government. The only real change will come from a grassroots movement to change the politics of all of this.

Demand that insurers cover the treatments you want. Seek out integrative practitioners. Tell health practitioners you work with that integrative education is available and urge them to get up to speed in those areas. Raise your own awareness of the extent that the powerful lobbies now influence the system and why we need to see a sweeping political change.

You offer several programs through the University of Arizona such as a four-year degree, a two-year fellowship for medical doctors and programs for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. What are the benefits of adding integrative medicine to one’s practice?

 I think it’s what patients want and it makes the practice of medicine much more enjoyable. Many practitioners realize that they don’t have the knowledge their patients want; for instance, informed counsel about diet or uses of alternative medication. This is a way they can gain knowledge they didn’t get in their conventional medical training. We’ve graduated more than 1,000 physicians over 10 years, supporting a robust and growing community of likeminded practitioners that stay in touch and support each other.

We’re eventually hoping that we can get integrative training into all residencies. Whether you go to a dermatologist, pediatrician, gastroenterologist or psychiatrist, that doctor will have had basic training in nutrition, mind/ body interactions, herbal medicine and all the rest that is now left out. We’ve also begun a program in lifestyle medicine that’s open to all kinds of practitioners, from registered dietitians to psychologists.

What reforms would you like to see in the current U.S. healthcare system?

 We need changed priorities for reimbursement that favors integrative medicine. At the moment, we happily pay for drugs and tests. We don’t pay for a doctor to sit with and counsel a person about diet or teach them breathing exercises. I would like to see a new kind of institution come into being that I call a healing center, where people could go for lifestyle education and management of common illnesses— somewhere between a spa and a clinic. Stays in these would be reimbursed by insurance, similar to how it’s done in Europe. Beyond that, I think it’s unconscionable that the richest nation on Earth can’t provide basic coverage to all of its citizens.

Dr. Andrew Weil will be spearheading the 12th annual Nutrition & Health Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 4 through 6, 2015. Learn more about integrative medicine at IntegrativeMedicine.Arizona.edu and DrWeil.com.

Andrea Schensky Williams is the publisher of Natural Awakenings of Northern New Mexico.

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