Over the last hundred years the debate on health care has quickly moved from superstition and ignorance, to the present basis of science, technology and medication. But the question I ask myself is, are we any healthier? This is not in any way a criticism of our current medical system. It is more a reflection on the whole idea of how we perceive and talk about health and health care.
One perspective on the body is that we are like a car – a collection of many material bits that every so often goes wrong and needs fixing. A second perspective about it is that there is more under the hood than just a bunch of matter parts – that there is an emotional/spiritual/mental component that needs tending to. These perspectives form the crux of an intense and often bitter debate.
A recent article in the The Economist states that herbal medicines and alternative therapies are bunkum, and that at best they are placebos. The suggestion is that the benefits patients receive are directly equated to what they believe in. That secondly, these benefits are related to the extra attention that patients receive from a holistic practitioner rather than a rather overworked family doctor. These notions are bound to upset all those who feel that they have received very real and effectual help from alternative therapies and healing methods.
The negative attitude towards holistic methods contained in the Economist article is not the impression that I have gained from attending several Health and Spirituality conferences at Medical Faculties at the University of Calgary and the University of British Columbia. These conferences were not presented by flaky practitioners with flimsy, anecdotal stories. They were medical practitioners, researchers and nurses who, in their day-to-day practice on the front lines of hospitals and research, had come to the conclusion that there was definitely something more under the hood than an array of matter parts that needed a fix. Some of these health practitioners were already practicing what is called “integrative” medicine, offering both a spiritual and a medical component to their treatments. Others were fully into a spiritual practice of health.
Health care has always been a hot-button topic with people in opposite camps ready to do battle to defend their point of view. Articles, such as the one in The Economist don’t much help the discussion, or those who are suffering, or who roll out hundreds of dollars each month for medical bills. Rather they stoke the fires of heated rhetoric.
However, as the debate rages, new realizations are dawning about health and its relation to a sense of wholeness – and perhaps to an inner spirituality. This is not a new debate but rather an age-old one. Fashions and theories have always attended the question of health care; but I rather wonder – in such a materialistic era as this – does our materialism color the way we see health? We may be living longer, but are we healthier? Statistics claim we are a more anxious, stressed and fearful society than we have ever been. It is a rarity to find people over the age of 65 years who are not on several medications. Mental illness is reaching epidemic proportions in all age groups. Obesity is a serious global problem.
This is a discussion that needs to take place without inflammatory rhetoric and rigid opinions. Perhaps we need to step back a bit, listen to each other’s stories and acknowledge that perhaps there may be many different roads to health care, and that each road needs respectful attention.
Printed in the Times Colonist June 8 2011