According to a 2023 survey by the American Academy of Physician Associates, nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population claim that to some extent, the health care system isn’t meeting their needs. Their complaints aren’t regarding the quality of doctors, so what’s not working?
The AAPA report identified three main areas of concern: long wait times, finances and frustration at the focus on treating illness, rather than preventing it. Nineteen percent of unsatisfied respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of wellness and preventive care practices in medicine.
American physicians treat patients more like machines than human beings. And this mechanical model has left patients yearning for more attentive and comprehensive care.
Dr. Michel Accad, a cardiologist and writer for the National Library of Medicine, wrote about the major problem with Western medicine in a study he conducted in 2016.
“Over the last one hundred years, the medical profession, with the help of government, academia, and big business, has turned Western medicine into a ‘healthcare delivery system’ in which biological material is the input, and health the hoped-for output,” Accad wrote.
The term Western medicine refers to the market-driven treatment of disease. Most often, this sort of care comes in the form of “biological inputs,” such as prescription drugs and surgical procedures. It’s an evidence-based, standardized approach to health care, attending to sickness through statistics, clinical trials and results from similar cases. And, it’s proven to be successful, leading to the creation of vaccines, the invention of life-saving X-ray radiation to fight cancer and the discovery of antibiotics.
Nevertheless, patients are clearly unsatisfied with their experiences with the health care system. Despite the efficacy of the Western model, it fails to look at the patient on an individual level. According to the AAPA poll, 64% of patients wish their health care providers took more time to understand them.
Integrative medicine — a practice that combines holistic and Western medicine to create more personalized treatment plans — might just be the solution to this problem.
Holistic and Western medicine have long been seen as two distinct entities. Holistic medicine focuses on the “whole” individual, rather than just their ailment. It emphasizes nutrition, mental health support, social relationships and other more subjective aspects of life that can impact the course of disease in the body and an individual’s overall well-being. Holistic practices strive to heal both the body and soul.
Dr. Santosh Rao, a physician at UH Connor Whole Health, shares his experience incorporating Eastern medical practices — a holistic form of care — into a traditional U.S. hospital. Rao, who primarily sees cancer patients, understands that such a severe diagnosis often leaves patients feeling defeated and hopeless. Treatments can last years, and positive results aren’t guaranteed. Where a conventional physician may focus solely on symptoms, Rao employs integrative medicine to address overall well-being, considering emotional, mental and social components of health.
For instance, when seeing a patient for breast cancer, Rao might discuss symptom management through lifestyle changes, such as meditation and yoga. He is an advocate for the power of safe holistic medical practices used in combination with evidence-based medicine. Rao leads with intention, facilitating open communication with his patients to develop strategies to improve wellness and help them cope with their diagnoses.
Traditionally, U.S. doctors look to medications as the first line of defense. Though they are often necessary for treatment, they don’t always target underlying causes of sickness. Studies have demonstrated that lifestyle changes can both treat and prevent chronic illnesses including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Physicians must consider both sides of the equation, medical inventions and preventive measures, to best tend to their patients.
For instance, improved diet and increased activity can often reduce high cholesterol and blood pressure. Non-weight-bearing exercises can treat joint pain. Mindfulness and meditation have shown they reduce physical pain and lower blood pressure.
In addition, some more experimental holistic practices can provide benefits, though one should always consult with a doctor before trying them. Acupuncture has been proven to reduce headaches and lower back pain, with results similar to those of pain relievers and physical therapy. After six months, research found a 33% reduction in pain after undergoing acupuncture treatment, compared to a 22% reduction for those who received pain relievers and physical therapy. To create a more comprehensive healing process, it’s important for doctors to present a variety of possible treatment options.
By no means is Western medicine the enemy — it’s highly effective and its efforts have saved millions of lives. Holistic medicine does not need to come at the expense of traditional U.S. health care. Used together, these two practices of medicine could drastically change the patient experience. Bridging the gap could be a step toward fixing the broken U.S. healthcare system.
Kate Micallef is an Opinion Columnist from Boca Raton, Fla. She writes about lifestyle, health, and college culture for The Daily and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.