Welcome to this blog that will focus on exploring fresh perspectives and discoveries about health. What part do we play in our health care? Do cultural, mental and social factors have an influence as to how we experience health? How can we address those factors in a constructive way?
I will be talking with health care experts within the current system who have ideas on these questions, and writing about their experiences. There are interesting new studies on the subject to share, as well as others’ experiences on the spiritual and mental aspects of our health. I’ll also share the benefits we can derive from this effort, because, ultimately, we all want better health.
Health is a major topic of conversation these days. What does it mean to be healthy? What makes us sick? When I read the parade of health options available I ask myself the question – “but are we any healthier?”
On the one hand, there is no question that people are living longer. But studies also show that we are not necessarily healthier. We are consuming medications for depression and pain at alarming rates. Obesity has recently been added to the list of illnesses in the United States by the American Medical Association. The medical community is predicting conditions such as Alzheimer’s will skyrocket as the population ages in North America. Diabetes and heart disease are predicted to continue to increase, and to weigh heavily on family wellbeing and national budgets….
An interesting study on what makes Canadians sick, which was published as an info-graphic by the Canadian Medical Association, changes for me to the question “What tends to lead us toward being healthy or toward being sick?”
There are a few surprises in this information. We have long been told that biology and genetics are the keys to health and sickness. Yet, here, they are far down the list. Higher in the list are things that pertain to our social environment, such as belonging or exclusion, lack of a social safety net, housing and a good job. Other items in that category suggest that education and access to nutritious food are major factors.
Family doctor James Melling from Vancouver Island notes that we are often reaching for a medication rather than addressing the social or mental impacts that might be the root cause of – or at least a significant factor in – an illness. “When patients are emotionally upset, the standard medical approach is to see those feelings as a disease that needs a medical answer, rather than a person who has emotional or spiritual needs that have not been met…. It is a band-aid for treatment.”
He adds, “If you take grief as an example, people tend to look for a prescription to soothe their pain, rather than working through the pain with family and friends together.”
Melling’s observations concur with my experience. People experiencing grief often feel isolated after the initial help has subsided. An interesting paper from the United Kingdom, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Social Exclusion behind closed doors,” confirms this. One of many troubling statistics in this study states that recently bereaved 65-79 year olds are ten times more likely than those who are married, to be lonely. It also indicates that recently bereaved people are three times more likely than married older people to show three symptoms of depression. And, it is well known that depression can often be the cause of pain, as well as other physical symptoms, which doctors treat without discovering the underlying cause due to time constraints in their practice.
To address this, many patients and physicians feel that healthcare professionals need to be able to spend more time with their patients. Recently, The Vancouver Sun published a heartening piece called “Hugs not drugs works for seniors with dementia.” Author Heather Campbell documents the move that some care facilities are making to lessen their use of anti-psychotic drugs in the care of their patients with dementia, replacing those drugs with understanding and social support. The results are tangible and moving.
What these two studies propose and show is that there are mental, emotional and even spiritual elements that need addressing in an individual’s health and, thus, in the health care system. According to other studies, taking steps to address these issues can reduce – even eliminate – the need for invasive health care methods. And, surveys show that the numbers of patients seeking this kind of “whole person” care are increasing every year. Hospitals, clinics, MD and nurse training institutions are scrambling to meet the demand.
Yet, resistance to “whole person” care remains. And funding – to cover it or further study it – is very limited.
To probe these trends and challenges, perhaps it is wise for us to remember that the current “mainstream” model of care – based almost entirely in allopathic beliefs and practices – has existed for only a few decades. How we care for our health 100 years from now may look just as much like science fiction to us today, as today’s practices might look to a man or woman of the late 1800s. Medicine, like all fields that deal with complex organisms, is under constant change – revolution really. When we add in the fact that we know our thinking influences our health, the complexity increases. That’s why it’s so important for us to ask questions, and to investigate, discuss and explore – both within and without the current models of care. It’s a fascinating journey. One I hope you’ll enjoy with me.
* This article was published on the Vancouver Sun Community Blog on July 12 2013