October 29, 2013

A holistic view of medicine

Every little bit of individual effort counts when it comes to fixing the systemic problems of medicine.

Holistic medicine is for quacks, right? Not quite.

This September, I attended a film screening of the documentary Escape Fire hosted by the Pritzker School of Medicine. The film was about elucidating current problems in healthcare and healthcare reform. Following the screening, Michael Meltzer, Doctor Sonia Oyola, and Doctor Kohar Jones—all truly inspiring healthcare leaders—led a panel discussion. The film and discussion helped me realize that although the path to a solution is bound to be highly complex, a good place to start is by emphasizing holistic medicine and primary care on the policy level, as well as quality care on the individual level.

The documentary makes the point that the stigma surrounding holistic and therapeutic medicine in the healthcare sphere is unfounded and, quite frankly, harmful. The film told the story of a war veteran who was addicted to narcotics and confined to a wheelchair. He was initially averse to holistic medicine approaches. But after using techniques such as acupuncture, meditation, and therapy, he learned to walk with a cane years before doctors could have predicted. The American public seems scared or dubious of holistic medicine—in fact, I was, and still am. But I’m also warming up to the idea of it. I made a personal commitment to exercise more, do yoga, and eat healthier this summer. The physical and mental changes I experienced were a testament to how multifarious health really is.

The movie also detailed the experiences of a disgruntled Doctor Erin Martin, who kept moving from place to place to practice medicine. She wanted to spend quality time with her patients to reach the root of their health problems, but felt that financial and political restraints prevented her from doing so. It is frustrating that truly well-intentioned people are not able to do the good that they are capable of because of a flawed system. Will I become one of them? During the discussion, Jones said, “You do not want to feel like you are just a person in a system treating another person in a system.” Oyola echoed the thoughts of the film’s Martin, saying that she trained to make “that 10 minutes with a patient feel like an hour.” I saw this as a difficult but noble undertaking—a solution born out of necessity.

During the panel discussion, one of the first questions was from a nurse who works at the UChicago Medical Center. She asked what the medical schools, specifically Pritzker, were doing to help solve these systemic problem in their curricula. She said that she would love to help teach classes that involve interdisciplinary work between doctors, medical students, nurses, and others. I wanted to stand up and give her a round of applause, and in retrospect, I regret not doing so. Jones gave the nurse her card, told her that they could continue that conversation, and just like that, things started happening. Recently, Jones told me that she and the nurse have been in correspondence since the film screening and that their collaboration in the near future looks promising. It was incredible to see how significant one proactive individual can be.

On that same note, a medical student in the audience commented that she did not feel that she had a voice. She perceived medical students to be at the bottom of the totem pole. (Where does that put undergraduates like me, or high school students?) Jones responded that medical students are at an incredible transition point—that they still can relate as an outsider to the community and provide unique input. She also mentioned her hope that medical students are not yet caught up in the mentality that they must specialize. Before this discussion, I had been told by several people at one point or another, even in high school, that specializing is the way to go, and that it’s “where the money is.”

The film made me reevaluate whether becoming an M.D. will satisfy me. There is still so much to be done on the policy level, and although I can certainly make a rewarding and important impact on each person’s life individually, how can I make that impact even bigger? I guess the answer to that is policy and politics—but getting any useful bill passed is like wading through molasses.

Escape Fire and its accompanying discussion have made me more seriously consider an M.P.H./M.D. or even a degree in alternative medicine. Even if I cannot personally deal with the politics, I can apply my knowledge to how I treat my patients. Even further down the line, the film and discussion made me think about not specializing and instead going into primary care—I hadn’t seriously considered this before, even though I had known the importance of preventive care, not just treatment.

In Oyola’s words, “nothing is too small” when it comes to serving the underserved. I hope to carry this philosophy with me through my undergraduate and medical school years and beyond.

Stephanie Bi is a second-year in the College.