Dr. Andrew Weil has always been a beacon of light in the healthcare field, a guru of wellness to whom you could look for enthusiastic optimism about our American prognosis, checking in from time to time with Oprah or Larry King to share his latest findings (chances are you first learned of the benefits of green tea or dark chocolate from him). As the state of American healthcare continues to deteriorate, even Dr. Weil has joined in on our collective “sigh” of disapproval, yet the one bright light in all of this brooding is that it is ultimately destined to spark the change we so desperately need.
Harvard educated physician, teacher and author of multiple best selling books, Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D. is the father of Integrative Medicine, as well as its greatest proponent. He is working diligently to lead that charge in this new phase of medicine that he feels may be the antidote for our high cost, designer brand of American healthcare which seems to be robbing our economy and doing little to make us any healthier. At The Center for Integrative Medicine at The University of Arizona, Dr. Andrew Weil is helping to churn a new type of physician out into the fold of American westernized medicine.
During our conversation, Dr. Weil gave me a detailed rundown of all that Integrative Medicine encompasses and how it is poised to change medicine as we know it, if only we would let it.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): You are an advocate and a teacher of what you call “Integrative Medicine” at The University of Arizona. What struck me is that it seems very much akin to what everybody has always called Holistic Medicine.
Dr. Andrew Weil: That term, Holistic Medicine, became popular in the 1970s and the main crux of it was “whole person” medicine. That is, to insist that patients are not just physical bodies, that they are also mental/emotional beings and spiritual entities, and community members. And I think that element, “whole person medicine,” is one piece of Integrative Medicine. But I think Integrative Medicine has a much larger vision than Holistic Medicine. Also, the term Holistic Medicine has never been accepted in mainstream medicine.
PR.com: Right, so Integrative Medicine is also an image facelift…
Dr. Andrew Weil: [Holistic] was always thought of as granola, hippie medicine. Integrative Medicine is now fully accepted in academic mainstream medicine. We define Integrative Medicine as first, being healing oriented. That is, it really emphasizes the body’s natural healing potential. Second, is the whole person concept which is the old Holistic Medicine idea. Third, it includes lifestyle medicine and all aspects of how people live as [being] relevant to health. Fourth, it places great emphasis on the practitioner/patient relationship as being central to the healing process. And last, that it is willing to use all methods that are approved, worth using and are not harmful. That’s the complementary alternative medicine piece.
PR.com: With doctors in particular, it’s not a secret to them that our healthcare is a mess. Many times they’ll gripe about it to their patients, which I’ve experienced. Why is it that physicians haven’t organized and revolted against the current system? Why are they lying down and allowing insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to run the show?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I think that doctors are incredibly unsophisticated politically. They have been very ineffective or absent from the political process. Chiropractors have been much more involved in that they’ve trained people and gotten people elected to [office], for example.
PR.com: Because they had to be…
Dr. Andrew Weil: They had to be, right. The AMA (American Medical Association) has been an incredibly ineffective political organization. It has lost almost every battle it has engaged in. So I think it’s important for doctors to become politically savvy and politically involved, but at the moment I think they feel as powerless as patients to change anything.
PR.com: My doctor has complained to me, just in the course of conversation, about insurance companies.
Dr. Andrew Weil: More than that, there are statistics on how many doctors are dropping out of clinical medicine. And I regularly hear doctors say that they would never let their sons or daughters go into medicine today, and they regret making that career choice. You would never hear anything like that twenty years ago.
PR.com: Let’s back up a bit and talk about medical schools. I had two friends who recently graduated from Ivy League level medical schools, and one of them mentioned off hand, during dinner conversation, that in her very last semester of medical school they had just introduced one class in basic nutrition into the curriculum. She was about to graduate, and they had just added one course in nutrition! How can medical schools ignore something as fundamental as good nutrition?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I think that to the academic mind, and I’m tempted to say the male academic mind, nutrition looks like home economics. It looks like a soft subject that’s not in the same realm as bio-chemistry and pharmacology, and for that reason it’s ignored. It’s just astonishing that something that is so central to health is given such short shrift.
PR.com: Is it fair to say that medical students are pretty much only trained to fix a body once it’s broken?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I think that’s absolutely true. I think they’re given very little information about the nature of health, the nature of healing, strategies for maintaining optimum health. I think that should be the healthcare system’s primary focus.
PR.com: At this point doctors are mechanics for bodies, basically.
Dr. Andrew Weil: I can’t blame physicians because that’s the way they were trained. There are huge subjects that are relevant to health and healing that are just completely omitted. It’s not just nutrition. It’s mind/body interactions, natural therapies… there’s a whole world of subject matter that should be there, that’s not.
PR.com: You mention in your book a statistic that I find very interesting, and you’ve repeated it quite a few times. You said that The World Health Organization recently rated The United States as 37th in the world for health outcomes, on par with Serbia. I don’t know anybody who would opt to get medical treatment or surgery in Serbia (laughs). Is that literally where we’re at?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Literally where we are at; and any way you look at it in terms of infant mortality, longevity and rates of chronic disease. The reason for this is that we have such a large percentage of uninsured people who don’t have access to healthcare. That’s the main reason that our health outcomes are so poor.
PR.com: So it’s because you’re really taking the lowest, the highest and everyone in the middle into consideration.
Dr. Andrew Weil: Right. That’s why the only priority of healthcare reform is “How do we get everybody included?”
PR.com: But you also say that it’s not just about [coverage], but that if we don’t get back to less technology our economy will continue to suffer.
Dr. Andrew Weil: Exactly, because we simply can’t afford to give this kind of medicine to everybody.
PR.com: Well, here’s the thing though, as a woman it’s been drilled into my head, for instance, that I have to get a mammogram every year. And there are many women whose lives have been saved because of mammograms, sonograms and MRIs as just one example.
Dr. Andrew Weil: Absolutely.
PR.com: So then how can we go backwards?
Dr. Andrew Weil: With all of these things it’s a matter of evaluating the risks and benefits. For example, The American Cancer Society has been urging women between 40 and 50 to get yearly mammograms, and I don’t think the evidence supports that unless a woman has particular risk factors in personal or family history. I think we need to look at all of this and prioritize where we use the high tech expensive stuff. As you know, a big problem is that we’re now using this for everything. So that people who have headaches commonly are sent for MRIs before somebody sits down and takes a good history, and that’s an enormous waste of resources.
PR.com: But a person who is successful and who has top PPO level insurance would say, “But I can afford to get any test I want, because I have a great insurance plan. I should have the right to go get a CT scan if I’m nervous about my headache.”
Dr. Andrew Weil: But it may not be in your interest to do that, because getting CT scans exposes you to radiation. It may also turn up irrelevant findings that are going to draw you deeper into the world of that kind of medicine. So just because you can afford it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should be doing.
PR.com: When you talk about “low tech, high touch” medicine I do understand the point you are trying to make but isn’t that, in some respect, what we had at the turn of the 20th century?
Dr. Andrew Weil: No, I think we had it much more in the middle of the 20th century. When I was growing up, that really was the way my family doctor did medicine. I think that, that is looked back on now often as the golden age of American medicine, the 1950s. And I think that the health of the country was actually better then, than it is now. So this doesn’t mean giving up the high tech stuff. It means learning when it’s appropriate to use it.
PR.com: And you suggest a triage system of healthcare.
Dr. Andrew Weil: This is a main point of what we teach in Integrative Medicine. It’s not rejecting conventional medicine. It’s knowing when and when not to use it, or how to use it in combination with other methods that increase its efficacy and minimize its harm.
PR.com: You and I have the same pet peeve which is this rapidly growing trend of pharmaceutical companies having free reign to market directly to the public via television commercials.
Dr. Andrew Weil: And that should be banned immediately.
PR.com: What I want to know is, how did it become legal in the first place, and which member of Congress or the Senate helped to pass that law through?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I don’t know the exact history, but as you can imagine it was from the lobbying of the pharmaceutical companies.
(We were hoping to give the responsible party the credit they deserve. Oh well.)
Dr. Andrew Weil: I’ve seen information on the current healthcare debate about which key Senators and Representatives are most in the pay of those interests. I think people have no idea how much our Representatives are manipulated by Big Pharma and by other aspects of the healthcare industry. It’s an enormous influence, and the other thing that’s even worse is that, and this is just astounding, that all these years the pharmaceutical lobby has blocked any legislation that would allow the federal government to buy drugs from Medicare at a discount. Unbelievable! And I don’t know whether you saw the story about the 2.3 billion dollar fine on Pfizer for illegally marketing that pain drug, Bextra. It’s the largest fine against a company ever, 2.3 billion dollars.
PR.com: How did Pfizer promote the drug Bextra that was deemed illegal and unethical by the FDA?
Dr. Andrew Weil: [They] marketed Bextra for unapproved uses. This was reported on page four of the business section of The New York Times. Why wasn’t that on the front page? The answer is obvious, because that’s how much influence these companies have.
PR.com: Is there really something called “disease mongering” where the pharmaceutical companies say, “Let’s come up with a drug and then convince the public that they have this particular defect or illness that requires this drug.”?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Absolutely. I think this includes a number of these “pre-conditions” like Osteopenia or calling any kind of nervousness some type of “anxiety disorder.” I just wrote a blog on that in The Huffington Post that’s up currently about disease mongering, and I think it’s absolutely true.
PR.com: It’s not just that they’re marketing to the public, which is bad. But I don’t even like the fact that they’re allowed to market to doctors in such a way. Sometimes I’ll get very angry if I’m sitting in a doctor’s office and I see a pharmaceutical representative dressed up with their briefcase, and they walk in and schmooze the physician, and convince them that a drug is great. Then the doctor will just spew that spiel back to a patient and dole out that drug before evidence is really complete as far as what it can do and what harm it can [potentially] cause.
Dr. Andrew Weil: As you may have seen in the book (Dr. Weil’s latest book, “Why Our Health Matters”), one of the things that I have called for is that the federal government really make available an objective source of information on drugs, so that doctors don’t get their information from the pharmaceutical companies which is now where they get it all.
PR.com: I began taking a low dose of Paxil about nine years ago. I had panic attacks my whole life. Now I’m on it just because getting off of it is such an ordeal.
Dr. Andrew Weil: I understand. The breathing exercises that I teach, the 4-7-8 Breath, are you familiar with that?
PR.com: I do deep breathing.
Dr. Andrew Weil: No, you want to do this specific technique. It’s by far the most effective method I’ve ever found for panic attacks. I call it the 4-7-8 Breath (drweil.com/drw/u/id/TIP02213). And by the way, [this is] an example of an extremely low tech, free and simple technique that is spectacularly effective.
PR.com: I’m sure my doctor, back in 2000, didn’t know any better (I was originally prescribed Paxil in 2000).
Dr. Andrew Weil: No, of course. But doctors now wouldn’t either.
PR.com: You outline in your book that American healthcare is, of course, very profit driven and corrupt. How do we undo it, and how do we get rid of the cancer business and the obesity business and the heart disease business? Those are thriving businesses.
Dr. Andrew Weil: The bottom line is that people really have to take responsibility for being healthy, because you can’t afford to get sick these days. It really is up to you on how to make the right choices to keep yourself healthy. I think that’s the main strategy. Secondly, I think there needs to be greatly increased government regulation of these industries and we also have to pressure or legislate the corporations to begin supporting healthy lifestyle choices, rather than the opposite. But it will take a huge societal effort to do it. I don’t think we can rely on politicians. I think this is something that’s going to have to come from people, and I’m a great believer in education and raising awareness so that people will begin to demand what they should be getting.
PR.com: Well people are practically coming after Obama with pitchforks and torches, but we elected him because we were crying that we didn’t have any kind of universal healthcare plan. Well now he’s trying to put one into effect and they’re ready to crucify him.
Dr. Andrew Weil: It’s just astonishing. I wish we could get people to see how they are being manipulated by their representatives and by companies. It’s really sad to see how easily people are manipulated.
PR.com: Have you read President Obama’s proposal for healthcare reform?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I haven’t read it all, but I know the basics. But as I said, the most crucial issue is, how do we get everyone covered? I think there needs to be a single payer system because that would free up millions and millions of dollars that are right now wasted in administrative costs. I think we have to curb the practice of defensive medicine, but with tort reform; that would also save us millions and millions of dollars. I’m afraid though that it looks like we’re moving towards, rather than a public option, mandated insurance so that people would be forced to buy private insurance and the people who will come out the winners on that will be the insurance companies.
PR.com: From what I understand they want to have a public option but also allow people to keep their private [insurance]. But if you keep your private insurance you would have to [possibly] pay an extra tax for that, as far as I understand at this point. It’s a situation where you can’t make everybody happy. But do you think what they’re proposing so far is viable at all?
Dr. Andrew Weil: I think it’s gotten so polarized and nasty. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to salvage anything. Medicare was a huge step, and if we could expand Medicare to cover the whole population that would be great. And by the way, Medicare is socialized medicine and so is the VA system (Veteran’s Health Administration), and I think that this argument about socialized medicine is unbelievably stupid.
PR.com: We’re all very scared of the word Socialism, but our education is socialized, our police and fire departments are socialized. Why are we so afraid of socialized medicine?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Because it’s a buzz word that makes people think that government agents are going to tell you what doctor you can go to. This was a strategy that a PR person came up with when the Truman administration tried to push for universal healthcare.
PR.com: At The University of Arizona at The Center for Integrative Medicine, which is where you teach, give me some bullet points of what makes this program different and more progressive than what other medical schools are currently teaching?
Dr. Andrew Weil: It’s an intensive thousand hour curriculum that includes all of the subject matter that is not part of the standard medical curriculum. It’s very high quality. We’ve now graduated over five hundred physicians and some nurse practitioners. The demands of this training are huge.
PR.com: Is it possible to spread this curriculum to other medical schools throughout the United States?
Dr. Andrew Weil: We’re already doing that. Our big initiative at the moment is to develop a more condensed curriculum in Integrative Medicine that will be made a required accredited part of all residency training. We’ve made great progress with that.
PR.com: And on your website you have a list of physicians who have graduated from this program?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Absolutely, at www.integrativemedicine.arizona.edu.
PR.com: Have you thought about sitting down with President Obama or Vice President Biden and actually presenting a proposal on how to augment healthcare reform with your idea about Integrative Medicine, as far as creating incentives?
Dr. Andrew Weil: Absolutely. Senator Harkin (Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa) is a big fan of the book and he gave President Obama and his wife copies of the book with marked passages. He also passed it out to thirty Senators. So that was a couple weeks ago. I’m certainly available if he would want to talk to me.
PR.com: You’re waiting for the book report.
Dr. Andrew Weil: Yeah (laughs).
Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D.’s latest book, “Why Our Health Matters,” is now available through Hudson Street Press/Penguin Group (USA), at Amazon.com and at all major bookstores.
To learn more visit drweil.com.