By Joanna Cosgrove
Among all of the hot button topics currently mounded on President Obama’s crowded plate is one issue that he’s been promising to address since the early days of his campaign: healthcare reform. That ball has officially begun rolling. In late February, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing called “Integrative Medicine: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation,” co-chaired by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in an effort to examine the role of complementary and integrative care in our healthcare system.
Echoing President Obama’s sentiment that prevention is the best way to both keep people healthy and reduce heathcare costs, Senator Harkin called the meeting to order with the hope that an ongoing dialogue about alternative medicine might enable it to become a more viable, widely accepted complement to conventional—and costly—allopathic medicine. “It’s time to end the discrimination against alternative healthcare practices,” he declared. “It’s time for America’s healthcare system to emphasize the coordination and continuity of care, patient-centeredness and prevention.”
In her opening remarks, Senator Mikulski concurred with Senator Harkin and added, “Not only should medicine and healthcare be complementary, but we need to begin to change the paradigm and have a continuum of healthcare.” She said their goal was to uncover the “sound science” involved in alternative care, facilitate different thinking, and “empower American people” to take charge of their own healthcare via prevention.
Among the witnesses who provided testimony were Dr. Mehmet Oz, director, Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY; Dr. Mark Hyman, founder and medical director, The UltraWellness Center, Lenox, MA; Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and president, Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, CA; and Dr. Andrew Weil, director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, Vail, AZ.
Dr. Oz pointed out the disconnect between what Americans spend for conventional healthcare versus what is gained in return, noting the cumulative damage that poor lifestyle choices has caused. “A key solution is support for a ‘Smart Patient’ movement that integrates complementary and alternative medical (CAM) approaches to conventional medical treatment,” he said. “We can combine the best of modern American medical practices with alternative approaches to wellness and harvest the natural healing powers of our bodies. CAM is not just about extreme treatments for advanced disease when no other solutions are available. It is about taking a population that has gotten comfortable living with half of the energy and sense of physical well-being that they should have at their age and moving them up the spectrum to live at full vitality.”
During his remarks, Dr. Hyman canonized the role of functional medicine as “proactive rather than reactive,” terming it an “operating system” that directly addresses how environment and lifestyle influence our genes to create imbalances in our core biologic systems that, over time, manifest as disease.
Dr. Weil underscored the growing desire—on the part of both physicians and patients—for an integrative approach, but said there is still much work to be done to legitimize it. “I can assure you that more and more doctors and allied health professionals want to practice this kind of medicine, because they see it as the medicine of the future: cost-effective medicine that can revitalize American healthcare and make it truly the best in the world,” he said. “Consumers have already embraced integrative medicine, but skeptics still question whether it really works. We need good outcomes studies to convince them, but we already have data showing that patients do indeed achieve better outcomes and are more satisfied with their care when treated by integrative physicians.”
Jeffery Bland, PhD, FACN, chief science officer of San Clemente, CA-based Metagenics Inc., also provided oral and written testimony about the role of integrative medicine in healthcare reform. His comments centered around the need for a paradigm shift in the focus of medicine, away from the current model that treats the symptoms of chronic diseases using acute care protocols to a new model that addresses the root causes of chronic diseases using prevention and lifestyle management.
He pointed out that although the present debate surrounding healthcare reform has focused heavily on universal access to care, absent from the dialogue is a discussion on the type of healthcare that should be provided. He went on to outline his view of what a broader approach might encompass. “We need to seriously address how to implement a nationwide clinical training program in prospective, functional medicine,” he said. “We need to develop reimbursement procedures for prospective, functional interventions that provide support for assessment, patient education and therapy. We need to harness the talents and expertise of healthcare extenders to provide patient services in the delivery of a personalized, predictive, preventive and participatory medicine for the reduction in the burden of chronic disease.
“A shift to prospective, integrative medicine is necessary for the healthcare issues Americans face today,” he concluded. “We already have the knowledge and the tools, including therapeutic lifestyle change programs, to practice this kind of care. My hope is that these therapies will eventually be integral to the way healthcare is delivered in this country.”
“Integrative Medicine: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation,” was just one in a series of discussions designed to further a dialogue between Washington and the nation’s healthcare experts in an effort to rectify our nation’s ailing healthcare system. President Obama made clear that he expected Congress to pass a bill this year and according to Senator Harkin, he and his colleagues are committed to taking him up on that challenge.