Healthcare in The American Melting Pot
A benefit to living in modern America is the amount of choice we possess. This is becoming increasingly true in healthcare. “Alternative” therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and various forms of bodywork are increasingly accepted as compliments to conventional Western medical treatment. What separates appropriateness of different therapies from one another is the mindset of the patient. Different modalities resonate with different people. As compulsory healthcare education broadens to include alternative therapies, we are faced with even greater choice.
Debate about the appropriateness of different therapies is not a new thing. Throughout the history of Chinese Medicine, there’s been much debate about effects of ingested medication in the form of herbs verses acupuncture treatment. Herbal medical practitioners have debated their mode of healthcare as most effective for internal physical disturbances. Acupuncturists have tried to counter this point of view. Acupuncturists claim to have more effect on “the spirit” of a patient than herbs, seeing the spirit as that which governs all healing. Herbal medicine claims acupuncture is only effective for acute issues; some acupuncturists believe herbal medicine is only physical medicine.
In truth, both herbal medicine and acupuncture are complete systems, designed to treat all conditions affecting body, mind and spirit. The approaches of the two are different though. Herbal medicine uses substance from outside the body that is ingested, much like modern drug therapy. Acupuncture utilizes energetic “acupuncture points” on the body to regulate physiology. The points already exist on the patient’s body; nothing is given to the patient except direction from a trained acupuncturist.
Acupuncture emphasizes self-healing.
Herbal medicine is reliant on an outside source. People often resonate with a particular modality of healing based on what they think they need: do they believe they already possess the capacity to heal, or do they need the support of outside substance?
Healing strategies are always based on philosophical viewpoints of the world. Our modern medical mindset is doctor-oriented, seeing medical professionals as “givers of health.” Many of us go to our doctors with the expectation that they can heal us. When we don’t experience the results we want, we may tend to blame the doctors. The modern medical profession is largely responsible for this point of view. We rely almost totally on outside intervention through drugs and surgeries to heal our ailments. Our contribution to our own healing is de-emphasized. We are encouraged to exercise, eat right and reduce stress. However, methods by which to do these things aren’t widely taught. Most of us are confused as to what kinds of exercise we should do for our specific medical concerns. We don’t know what kinds of foods are beneficial for us, and which exacerbate our conditions. Because the western medical mindset is disease-focused, the point of view is not on the individual, but on generalized disease patterns. We are taught generalized diets and exercise routines that we are taught are “good for us.”
Within my classical Chinese medical training, generalized recommendations of health practices are insufficient. Many of us may exhibit similar symptoms, however root causes of these symptoms is always individual. Therefore treatment of theses symptoms must also be individual. Chronic headaches for example can energetically be the result of heat, cold, wind, damp, blood deficiency, and so forth. Treatment of each energetic condition calls for different strategies.
Chinese Medicine is traditionally a system that focuses on the individual. It was not a “public health” mindset until epidemics during the 17th century called for widespread treatment of the population. Patent herbal formulations were created to treat a large number of people. Herbs were included in these formations to treat all possible causes of conditions. This “shotgun” approach was based on dire emergency conditions where many people were dying at once, and fast treatment was necessary. Prior to this, formulations were created for the individual, focusing on the person’s unique physiology and constitutional makeup, taking into account their physical and mental character. Treatment was tailor-made.
Today we live in a system that is largely a “public health” mindset. When we ask our doctor or a dietician what kinds of oils we should consume, they don’t tell us that vegetable oils are toxic to people who have excess heat in their bodies. We are told certain oils are “good,” and others are “bad.” But good and bad for whom? Some people are unaffected by consuming vegetable oils, others develop harmful toxins in their bodies from these oils. Some of us benefit from eating red meat, others don’t. The same is true for raw food and dairy. Some of us benefit more from yoga practice, others from cardiovascular exercise, and others from tai ji, qi gong and martial arts. But who benefits from what? It is simply not true that certain foods or exercise practices are good for everyone. This also is a “shotgun” approach to health. In the end, we lose out from this approach.
Western medicine possesses the tools for working in an individualistic manner, however it lacks the time and mindset to do so. How often does a doctor spend more than 15 minutes with a patient to listen to their complaints and counsel them on individual practices for improving their health? “Based on your blood tests and diagnostic findings, you should not eat vegetable oils, would benefit from tai ji instead of running, eat sprouts and strawberries, eliminate gluten”: I’d love to see a medical doctor take the time to do this kind of individualistic work. Furthermore, creating a drug combo that is individually formulated to address the specific causes and conditions of the individual, rather than “this drug treats this,” ect. I’d also love to see greater awareness of body-mind connection.
It is acknowledged that stress plays a big role in illness. However “stress” is such a generalized term. What is stress? How does it play out physiologically? It creates a highly acidic environment: excess heat. What are dietary actions and specific exercises that can clear the heat, and create a more alkaline environment within the body? Chinese Medicine would suggest eating cooling foods such as celery and cucumbers, toxin-clearing foods such as strawberries, and staying away from heat-generating foods such as garlic and onions. Exercises that moves the body’s energy and causes sweating and urination, such a tai ji and qi gong would be recommended. As well as a more yin-promoting lifestyle, such as early bedtime and rest. The doctor becomes a health consultant instead of a drug dispensary. They empower the patient to get involved in taking actions to change, instead of trying to do all the work for them.
In my experience, this kind of time and attention is simply not built into the mainstream medical system. Many doctors would like to work in this way, but outside forces such as insurance policy and overcrowding make it impossible. Perhaps the benefit of working individualistically is not emphasized in medical schools?
Alternative health systems, because they are outside of the mainstream over-stretched medical system do have the time to work with patients in this way. Patients often have to pay for such treatment out of their pockets, instead of relying on insurance, but they often receive more time and individualistic care as a result. There is also more of a focus on getting involved in our own healing, rather than allowing the doctor to do it all for us.
I don’t mean for a minute to devalue mainstream medical treatment. It can be the best method for saving lives. When someone is hit by a car, having a heart attack, or has a ruptured appendix, the hospital is the best place to receive treatment. Surgeons are seen as rock stars because they save lives. However from my classical Chinese medical point of view, western medicine excels at treatment of acute, life-threatening conditions. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, being that they are individually-focused therapies, can be far more effective for treating chronic and degenerative conditions, as well as for maintaining health based on acknowledging our individual constitutions.
There are many truths. Even modern science is consensus medicine: collectively as a society, we agree with “truths” advocated by the system. Other cultures may see things differently. We as Americans live in a melting pot of many cultures. We have the benefit of being exposed to foreign ideas. We can explore and choose what we believe.
Truth is based largely on the way we see the world, and what we resonate with. How else could western and eastern medicine create such widely different ways of seeing the body? The role of philosophy is to question whether our accepted truths are benefiting us. Taking responsibility is realizing we have choice. This is perhaps the greatest gift to living in America.