Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Can a Faith-Based Health System Make a Difference?

We all know that having hope alone without empowerment action plans will not be adequate for any health system to address the operational challenges generated by the global economic crisis. But perhaps a more important question is, “How do hope and faith contribute to the healing of patients?”

The Feb. 23, 2009 issue of Time magazine included several articles on faith and healing. After reading these articles, I reflected on this important question, as I have periodically in my 40 years of physician leadership in four health care systems.

As a surgeon, I observed in my early years on many occasions that two patients could have very similar pathological disease pictures which were treated almost identically by me and my team. However, the post-op outcomoes of each would be very different, one patient getting well quickly, and the other having a more prolonged recovery period with our inability to uncover any organic reasons for the unusually slow recovery.

Over the years, I always assumed that the “early” recovery patient had perhaps a stronger will to live, a greater strength to overcome pain and adversity and a much more optimistic outlook on life in general. In addition, however, I would periodically ask what part “keeping the faith” and “never giving up hope” played in the notable difference in the recovery of patients.

My interest in this question caused me to always be a supporter of exploring alternative and complementary medical therapies and asking how they might best be integrated with traditional therapies that we all learn so well in medical school and our residency programs. When I heard, while in training, that 80 percent of all “health care” is done through self-diagnosis, self-treatment and non-prescription medications purchased over the counter, I knew that it would always be important to at least be open to what alternative modalities are available, how they are being used and what if any outcomes have been documented.

Clearly, the strong opponents for my support of complementary/alternative therapy practices including the use of herbs, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, therapeutic music and prayer remind us that there is no documented research which has calculated that they result in positive outcomes. They cite the lack of “evidence-
based medicine.” However many patients throughout the world would say that they have been “cured” because of their use of prayer, faith or alternative/complimentary medical therapies for symptoms related to diagnoses given by traditional practices but which were not relieved by traditional therapies.

Those practitioners today who do embrace the integration of Eastern and Western medicine believe that if there is no proof that the therapy, medicine or activity do harm and the patient wants to try them, they should be encouraged to do so. However, the true believers in the power of faith, herbs, etc. know that a more widespread use and support by traditionalists will only occur if more traditional research methodologies are utilized to garner evidence that these approaches are enhancing health and wellness in the people we treat. Fortunately, this research is escalating in the U.S., as is referenced in the four Time articles and is being supported at the federal level by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, created in 1991.

With my openness to exploring the causes for my early observations of different recovery periods for similar patients, I spearheaded the Alternative/Complementary Clinic in my time at Henry Ford as well as similar programs at CHRISTUS Health. Based on some studies we did at Henry Ford, we are comfortable that alternative therapies may be better for such diagnoses as sinnitus and migraine headaches.

In a large clinic we run in Tampamalon, close to a Reservation in Mexico, we are observing the work and herbal treatments done by the tribal medicine men and women and observing how they can complement the traditional treatments we are providing. I predict that a much larger number of diagnoses will be treated more successfully by a mixture of both in the next decade.

The articles clearly indicate that more research and focus is being placed on gaining a better understanding of how, in addition to the other alternative modalities, faith and spirituality assist in a more rapid recovery. The high cost of traditional therapies also supports the acceleration of this research.

What will be the ultimate findings? No one has the answer and only time will tell. But I do know that faith-based health care systems foster a greater openness to alternatives which we have observed to “selectively” work, and support them, l as long as they do no harm, until objective data can be collected.

Certainly, the worst case would be that a successful alternative therapy will never be used because no one is open enough to studying it. It does take a “faith” to continue this exciting journey which hopefully uncovers more less-expensive, non-invasive alternative therapies which will only make our traditional medicine better. I, for one, am very hopeful and optimistic.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Today's newest science, Epigenetics, has shown that the power of our own thoughts and feelings can change gene expression (function). The square peg of healing effects of prayer, meditation and other CAM therapies may not fit into the round hole of mainstream medical research, but that does not mean that it doesn't work. Why wouldn't we want to explore treatments that don't involve artificial prescription drugs or surgery?