Executive Interview: Q&A with Dr. Andrew Weil

As a frequent guest on Larry King Live, Oprah, and The Today Show, Dr. Weil provides valuable information and insight on how to incorporate conventional and complementary medicine practices in one's life to optimize the body's natural healing power. He is the Founder and Director of the Program in Integrative Medicine (PIM) at the College of Medicine, University of Arizona, where he is also a Clinical Professor of Medicine and Professor of Public Health.

Dr. Weil provides valuable information and insight on how to incorporate conventional and complementary medicine practices in one's life to optimize the body's natural healing power. A frequent guest on Larry King Live and Oprah, he has also hosted his own PBS-television specials. In addition, Dr. Weil is the author of eight books including the national bestsellers Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, and Eating Well for Optimum Health.

Suzanne Shelton speaks with Dr. Weil about his message, his activities to educate and fund research in integrative medicine and his perspective regarding the dietary supplements industry.

When did you first discover alternatives to conventional medicine?

It was long before I entered medical school. I’ve had a lifelong interest in plants that led me to major in botany and become a student of medicinal plants. I also have a long-time interest in consciousness and mind/body interactions. I began actively studying alternative medicine in college.

Let’s talk about the line of products under the Weil Lifestyle label. How do you answer critics who say MDs should not sell products?

First of all, I am one of those critics. I have always voiced the opinion that there should be a clear separation between a health care professionals recommendations and the potential to profit from those recommendations. If a health care provider believes in a product and carries it in their office at a reduced price to patients, without making a profit, that’s fine, but when they are distributors of entire lines, or even several lines, it sends the wrong message.

My recommendations have not changed since products were launched with my name supporting them, and I recommend many products that have no affiliation with our group - they are just good products with good science backing them. The only thing that has changed are the options available to the consumer. And I do not personally profit from the sales of any of these products.

Did you launch your own line of products or do you have a licensing deal with existing brands to use your name. What are you trying to accomplish with this brand?

We actually did create our own brand to bring supplements to market, but have licensed with others, such as Origins, where there was a strong philosophical alignment. Any product affiliated with Weil Lifestyle was either developed by us or reviewed in depth for its efficacy and application within the model of integrative medicine. We are approached on a daily basis to include many independently developed products in the Weil line, but almost all of them, frankly, lack any science to support a recommendation.

One goal of creating the brand was to allow access to science-based products that do meet my recommendations, and a second focus was to create a funding platform to advance educational programs in integrative medicine.

I read that all profits from the products go to the 501(c)(3) you founded. Why did you start the Weil Foundation and how does having your own product line fit with the Foundation’s overall objectives?

I think the having the Weil line allows a clear message to reach the public about their personal support of integrative medicine. This is a way people can directly help fund educational and research efforts.

The Weil Foundation will allow funding of many educational programs throughout the country that are making a difference.

We are just at the beginning of the work that needs to be done to fix health care in this country, and although the private contributions have been critical to the mission, they have not been enough to make the kind of impact that is necessary in medical education.

This year the Weil Foundation gave grants to the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, the Integrative Family Medicine Center at the Oregon Health and Science University, the Integrative Family Medicine Program at the Maine Medical Center, and the American Botanical Council. Is this indicative of what the Foundation will do in the future? What are the performance criteria for this funding?

Yes. We are looking for programs with the highest impact. Oregon and Maine have pioneering trainings, combining family medicine residencies with integrative medicine fellowships.

Your mission appears to be to promote and educate around complimentary medicine, which of course encompasses many alternative modalities. You are a proponent of science-based health care, and yet many non-allopathic modalities aren’t easily evaluated in the same way drugs are. What is your recommendation for such cases?

My goal is to promote and educate on integrative medicine, which does not reject conventional medicine or its models of evidence. I think it’s important to use the allopathic model of establishing and evaluating efficacy whenever it is appropriate. Even with its flaws, it offers a convention to remain objective about an interventions benefits and risks. In some cases using this model blindly will simply not answer the question. I think the governing principle for proving something actually works should be based on its potential to do harm. A chemotherapeutic agent, for instance, should be held to a higher standard of evidence than say, prayer, which has little risk of doing harm.

Current research programs at NIH might not be immediately or directly applicable to really support health initiatives and priorities. Is it realistic to want more relevant science?

What is really needed now are outcomes studies in which conventional treatment and integrative treatment are compared head to head in large populations with ailments that are important public health priorities. NIH does not see its mission as including this kind of research. My hope is to engage large corporations in this effort, because they are crippled by rising health care costs and highly motivated to find innovative solutions.

How can the supplements industry generate the research momentum we really need?

They can (and should) be vocal about developing standards of product evaluation based on science. This includes everything from uniform methods of establishing the identity of plant material used in manufacturing, to testing the finished products using established, validated laboratory methods. The industry should also get much better about self-policing some of its players, as well as educating the public about what to demand as evidence of usefulness before buying a product.

I’ve been involved in some industry self-policing programs that have had a very hard time getting funding from industry. Any thoughts about this?

I think the industry has been very irresponsible and not acted in its best interests. They have invited more regulation that could be avoided and should have gotten rid of some of the worst players.

You have sometimes been very critical of the supplements industry. What are your main concerns?

I have been the most critical of supplements and supplement companies that promote heavily without any evidence of product efficacy. The worst offenders are often promoted through multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes. Some things have improved over the past few years, but the industry is still full of companies looking for the marketing edge instead of better products or better science. The “supplement of the month” is a distressing theme that remains, with the first concerns usually being “will it sell?” and “how cheaply can we make it?” rather than “is it safe?” and “does it really work?”

From time to time, industry has reached out externally and tried to establish relationships and partnerships. What groups would you suggest the supplements industry reach out to, and why?

I would ideally like to see them working both with medical researchers and with the FDA. A handful of supplement companies I support are getting their products into the hands of university research teams and funding pilot studies to establish efficacy and safety. Two examples are Fungi Pefecti in Olympia, Washington and New Chapter in Brattleboro, Vermont.

The UNPA (Utah Natural Products Alliance) is an industry group working on Capitol Hill to establish high standards, including standardized validated testing methods, more stringent GMP’s, and increased FDA involvement. I think this is the right approach to help clean up the industry. It would also be great, of course, if the supplement industry made formal efforts to support integrative medicine and the changes in medical education, as this will benefit everyone in the long run.

Your new book, ‘Healthy Aging’ counsels acceptance of aging and in places is critical of anti-aging medicine. What kind of response is this message getting?

The response has been very positive. I think people are fed up with anti-aging messages and ready to look at the realistic goal of staying healthy while we age. Even while I was finishing writing Healthy Aging last year, the circle of professionals who read it in manuscript form felt it spoke to a change in their own attitude that was necessary to age gracefully.

You founded the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona to teach medical practitioners about complementary medicine. How many people have you trained? What has the response been from the allopathic medical community?

The program teaches integrative medicine, not complementary medicine. Integrative medicine is a healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.

The principles of integrative medicine:

  • A partnership between patient and practitioner in the healing process
  • Appropriate use of conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body’s innate healing response
  • Consideration of all factors that influence health, wellness and disease, including mind, spirit and community as well as body
  • A philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative therapies uncritically
  • Recognition that good medicine should be based on good science, be inquiry driven, and be open to new paradigms
  • Use of natural, effective, less-invasive interventions whenever possible
  • Use of the broader concepts of promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as the treatment of disease
  • Training of practitioners to be models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development

We have graduated over two hundred physicians from the residential and associate fellowship programs, and many other medical schools have now followed suit and created their own programs in integrative medicine. In addition, a consortium of medical school deans has been established to help guide the development of education in integrative medicine across many well-known universities.

In your opinion, how does the supplements industry become part of the discussion on healthcare cost reduction and become part of a solution?

The supplement industry is currently the primary vehicle for the public to obtain non-prescription substances which may have positive impacts on their health and improve quality of life. Many of these are just as effective as prescription medications, and often have fewer side effects. For those products which have proven efficacy, and for those manufacturers that have demonstrated their commitment to quality and safety, insurance reimbursement to consumers using them might be a viable option.

Many supplement companies are already working with insurance groups to create plans of preventive medicine and corporate wellness plans, both of which include the use of supplements. If the prudent use of supplements as part of a healthy lifestyle can reduce the incidence of age related diseases by just a fraction, the reduction in health care costs would be substantial.

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