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Rebuilding Trust in our Doctors: An Option for our Broken System

This week’s impeachment hearings show what a crisis of trust we live in today.  69% of Americans believe the government withholds information from the public, according to recent findings by Pew Research Center.  Just 41 % of Americans trust news organizations.  We even distrust our own health care providers: Only 34% of Americans say they deeply trust their doctor.

One important way doctors can regrow that trust is to become educated about the types of medicine their patients want, including alternative therapies. 

People are seeking new ways to care for their health. For instance, the percentage of U.S. adults doing yoga and mediating—while still a minority– rose dramatically between 2012 and 2017, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.  Likewise, the number of Americans taking dietary supplements including vitamins, minerals and natural therapies like turmeric, increased ten percentage points, to 75% in the past decade, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition.  As Americans increasingly seek out non-pharmaceutical ways to address wellness, they need doctors who can talk to them about such alternatives. 

Unfortunately, this is rare.  As a provider of an holistic approach to health called Ayurvedic Medicine, I often see people who tell me their physician dismissed them when they asked about treatments they’d read about on the internet.  In many cases, clients tell me their doctor has actually chastised them for entertaining an alternative approach to their existing illness.  This leaves them disempowered. They wanted to make choices to improve their own health, but found they were not acknowledged, supported or even understood by the doctor.  

Furthermore, when doctors aren’t familiar with alternative treatments, they can’t advise their patients about interactions with conventional medicines.  With 75% of Americans taking some sort of supplement, all doctors should at least be able to offer guidance on contraindicated medications. 

With all this, it’s not surprising that only 30% of my patients report having a primary care physician they are happy with.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Physicians should receive mandatory training in integrative medicine, allowing them to consider both prevention and intervention in promoting health and wellbeing.  I’m not saying M.D.s must become experts in  alternative forms of medicine;. That would require years of rigorous training and hundreds of hours of clinical experience. I certainly do not want to see doctors prescribing an Ayurvedic remedy without understanding the underlying cause and pathology. That could simply replace pharmaceuticals with herbs, rather than working with the individual as a whole.  

Instead, I am proposing that conventionally trained physicians do what I do.  When I believe my clients would benefit from conventional medical treatment protocols instead of, or in addition to natural therapies, I offer an educated and empirically based explanation as to why, and respectfully refer out to the appropriate professional.   But conventional physicians rarely do the same. 

To give patients a full, informed range of options, doctors should be required to demonstrate familiarity with the various non-conventional systems of medicine, like traditional Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy, so they can have an educated conversation with patients who ask.  At that point, doctors could refer those cases elsewhere, or further their education to encompass a deeper understanding of the discipline. Either way, the patient has been acknowledged and supported by the system.

A few leading medical schools are already doing this. In Arizona, the Dr. Andrew Weil Center for Integrative medicine, where I have taught,  paved the way in 1994, followed by George Washington University and the University of Wisconsin, to name a few.

This divide between conventional and alternative medicine is particularly important at this moment in time. The current healthcare system has turned patients into healthcare consumers who must make their own choices, and who are  more and more empowered to take control of their own health. In many ways, this is a good thing.  As we do so, patients deserve doctors who understand the full range of choices that consumers face. 

If more physicians are trained and educated in medical school to think with an integrative approach to medicine, we can change the broken system, and docs will benefit too. The system is not set up to support them either. By creating an overwhelming demand, ordinary people can advocate for large health care hospitals, clinics and institution to provide compassion and implement integrative models for better quality of care. . It is in our hands to rebuild the trust of the now unhappy, and skeptical patient. Because without a trust in the healer, how can the healing begin?

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