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Why I Believe in Whole-Person Medicine


Why I Believe in Whole-Person Medicine


As I mentioned in my last post, I have spent nearly the last forty years treating what often seemed like symptoms. Surgery and prescriptions often do help. But often they come at the end of a long line of inflection points, and in the context of an unhealthy environment, poor nutrition and lifestyle choices, and a lack of social and spiritual connections. A whole-person focus on health tries to treat the root causes of our health problems. When we can make changes to our diet, environment, and relationships, we can reverse serious and chronic illnesses or even prevent them from springing up in the first place.


Medicine often sounds dry and scientific. But once we begin to talk about whole-person health, even federal agencies begin to sound prophetic. The National Institute of Health (NIH) points towards the importance of whole-person health with the following line: “Health and disease are not separate, disconnected states but instead occur on a path that can move in two different directions, either toward health or toward disease (NIH, 2021).” It sounds almost biblical: there is a path that leads towards life and health, and another path that leads towards sickness and death. The decisions we make every day, often small, easy-to-miss decisions, are leading us in very different directions. I am convinced that this more holistic, more spiritual way of understanding health actually better gets to the root of the medical problems affecting millions of Americans. Millions of Americans, and a growing share of us, are affected not by the acute problems that doctors are most equipped to deal with but by chronic conditions that are best treated holistically.


A chronic illness “is a physical or mental health condition that lasts more than one year and causes functional restrictions or requires ongoing monitoring or treatment (Raghupathi and Raghupathi, 2018).” Chronic conditions, like ongoing cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, respiratory issues like COPD, obesity, and arthritis, are among the most common diseases Americans face. Two thirds of all deaths in the US are from just five chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD, and diabetes. Forty five percent of Americans have at least one chronic condition, one in four US adults have two or more chronic conditions, while over half of older adults have three or more of these chronic conditions (Raghupathi and Raghupathi, 2018).


Not only do chronic diseases make us miserable and, often, eventually kill us: they are also bleeding us dry financially. 75% of healthcare spending in the US, $5,300 a person per year in 2017, is spent on treating chronic conditions. This includes an unbelievable 96% of medicare spending, because so many of older adults face years with chronic, debilitating conditions. The US healthcare system and we as individuals pump billions of dollars into treating the symptoms of these problems. But these diseases are not primarily the purview or specialty of traditional medicine! Instead, lifestyle, diet, and environment are the main causes of all of them. If you have lung cancer, it is good to get medical treatment at a hospital. But changes to diet, like losing weight and eating more fruits and vegetables; lifestyle, like quitting smoking and improving sleep quality; and where you live and how you choose to get to and from work can both help to improve your odds of beating cancer and, if implemented early, help you avoid lung cancer all together.


As a doctor, I had wanted to heal people. At seminary, I had wanted to reach people’s souls. But as I have progressed in my career I have realized that true healthcare, a whole-person medicine, should encompass both. A person’s connection to their faith community is not disconnected from their diabetes. A person’s COPD is not free from the food they eat, or how often they take a spiritually nourishing walk in the woods. At Sunrise Health and Wellness Center, it has been an honor to spend time with patients, understand the factors contributing to their chronic illness, and then work with them to help target and eliminate these factors. Watching someone who suffered from a chronic condition who is now able to live a healthier, freer life has been an incredible honor. Even better, because of my background with severe chronic illness in nursing homes, I am able to understand the way that these changes will have long-lasting effects and save people from years in a debilitated condition.


As someone who has worked in medicine for decades and spent the last several years of my practice in nursing homes and memory care facilities, I know that death is inevitable on this side of resurrection. All of us are going to die. We should not imagine that we can become immortal by eating better or that will mean we never have to face aging and death. However, a focus on whole-person medicine can give us more years to enjoy with our friends and family. What has given me the most hope as I have transitioned into whole-person medicine, has been seeing improvements to quality of life and the cessation of chronic illnesses. By focusing on diet, lifestyle choices, environment, and hormone imbalances, I have seen people add healthy, enjoyable years to their lives.


In a country where chronic illnesses are affecting more and more of us even as our medical expertise improves, it is clear that we need a new paradigm to help people lead healthier, freer lives. A whole-person medicine, like the one I have landed on here at Sunrise Health and Wellness, is the only way that I have seen to target the underlying causes of ill health and free people for the lives they are meant to lead. In my next post, I will talk about why I believe diet and nutrition form the bedrock of a healthy lifestyle and whole-person health.



 


NIH, 2021. “Whole-person Health: What You Need to Know.” NIH. Retrieved from: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/whole-person-health-what-you-need-to-know


Raghupathi W, Raghupathi V. 2018. “An Empirical Study of Chronic Diseases in the United States: A Visual Analytics Approach.” Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Mar 1;15(3):431. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15030431. PMID: 29494555; PMCID: PMC5876976.

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