It’s been two and a half months since the publication of my book, When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, and I’m exhilarated and exhausted. Since January, I have been traveling around the country to talk about why it’s so important for doctors to listen and how patient empowerment can transform medical care. The reception to these messages has been excellent, and I’m very grateful to my colleagues around the country for inviting me to speak.
Having given dozens of talks on When Doctors Don’t Listen, I can predict most audience questions. Invariably, someone will ask about medical malpractice: aren’t doctors just protecting themselves by ordering more tests? (My response: the primary cause of malpractice is lack of communication, and tests don’t replace communication.) There will be another question about how the medical profession has reacted to the book. (My response: quite well—who wants to admit that they’re the doctor who doesn’t listen?)
There is one more question that is consistently raised, from Boston to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Cincinnati, one that I wouldn’t have predicted. What do you think about integrative medicine, someone will ask. Why don’t doctors advise patients on other options beyond pills and CT scans? What about treating the whole person, and preventing disease from occurring in the first place?
This question surprised me, as did my lack of knowledge of how little I actually knew about integrative medicine. Even though I was born in China, a country steeped in combining Western practice with Eastern philosophies, my medical training has been exclusively from conventional Western institutions. I cannot recall one course during medical school or residency that focused on complementary medicine or holistic care, or anything other than the disease-oriented model of Western medical care.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was asked this question during my book tour that I began looking into the concept of integrative medicine. I learned that integrative medicine is not synonymous with complementary and alternative medicine, but rather is “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.”
This sounds like the type of medicine that all doctors should all strive to practice, and all patients strive to receive! In the words of physician and noted humanist Dr. Abraham Verghese, integrative medicine isn’t “wedded to a particular dogma, Western or Eastern, only to the get-the-patient-better philosophy.” Indeed, millions of patients in the U.S. and around the world embrace this holistic medical practice, and the pioneers of integrative medicine, such as Drs. Andrew Weil, Bernie Siegel, Deepak Chopra, and Dean Ornish, are widely revered.
Yet, from my own experience, I know that integrative medicine is not something we are teaching future doctors. I can also see that, based the persistence of this one question asked around the country, patients are hungry for knowledge on what they can do that goes beyond our Western concepts of disease. Instead of prescribing a pill for blood pressure and cholesterol, what is an exercise regimen that I can try first? Is there an alternative to surgery for my back pain, including yoga and massage? How can doctors coordinate my care with more “traditional” healthcare providers like nutritionists and physical therapists, as well as more “alternative” providers such as acupuncturists and naturopaths? Health is not just about illness, but about prevention and maintaining wellness—how can patients partner in all aspects of their health?
I am in the midst of writing a series on medical errors that occur in the hospitals. We know that conventional Western medicine can save lives, but we also know that medical error happens far too frequently. We also know that 30% of all tests and treatments are unnecessary. Patients are seeking an alternative approach to health. They want information about prevention and natural approaches to health. They want to talk to their doctors about it, but are finding that their doctors—like me—know precious little about integrative care.
During my research in China last summer, I spent some time observing the practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who were adept at integrative medicine. Unfortunately, this, and my brief but educational visit to Emperor’s College, an oriental medical school in California, is the extent of my interaction and knowledge of integrative medicine.
Now that the book tour is coming to a close, I am looking to learn more about the surprising topic that has emerged and to think more about how to educate conventionally trained doctors like myself to practice a holistic approach to patient care. Please reply with your suggestions for resources. Include links. Recommend books. Suggest places for me to visit, virtually and in person. Contribute your experiences. I’ll post more from my journey in this blog.