The health care crisis is a difficult one to face. Health care budgets have skyrocketed, and rates of chronic illnesses have increased much faster than before. As physician leaders, what if we each took personal responsibility for the crisis? Perhaps it all boils down to how many people trained in health care know what is necessary for living healthy lifestyles. Yet, that knowledge often doesn’t materialize in excellent health outcomes. From my experience in health for over a decade, I have noticed that there is a growing lack of personal responsibility for one’s health.
For health care success, society needs to be more responsible for its actions and stop this culture of denying and downplaying real health care problems. A classic yet controversial example is the discussion of obesity. We have glorified the obesity epidemic, and those who speak out are labeled as insensitive or fat-shaming. First, for those that are reading this, know that I come from a place of understanding. I come from a place where I once struggled with weight and was significantly overweight. I am not a person who can eat or drink whatever I want and not affect the scale. Instead, I have to be mindful of my daily choices. We live in a world where many people are too afraid to speak the truth for fear of offending someone or being politically incorrect.
After a decade of seeing so many quick fixes applied to health management, I became frustrated. I was tired of doling out prescriptions at the expense of individuals taking personal responsibility for their actions. I was tired of listening to people complain about the side effects of their inaction and complacency when it came to their health. These individuals were happy to complain yet had the resources and means to change, but rather, they chose not to.
Holistic medicine recognizes the need for pharmacological intervention; however, this is only a part of the treatment model. When we realize individuals as a whole rather than a series of diagnoses, is it is much easier to piece together the underlying causes for their ailments. When we take the time to connect with our patients as a whole, it makes it easier for them to feel comfortable with us and, eventually, build trust. When we take the time to learn about them, they no longer feel like a number. Or just a patient but a human being who has value and worth. Human psychology is so powerful, and understanding individuals motivating factors and what “pushes their buttons “can aid in patients having sustainable, consistent change and improvement in their health status.
For many reasons, I pivoted in my health care delivery and became a mental health and wellness coach. I believe that mental health is the foundation of physical health. I translated it another way. Physical symptoms and behaviors can be symptoms of underlying beliefs about oneself, mindset, and mental health. Looking at a whole person approach, I consider individuals’ spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, and financial health. These areas genuinely cover the entire person. These principles are nothing new, but it recognizes an approach to health. Rather than focusing on illnesses or specific parts of the body, we have considered the whole person and how they interact with their environment. This type of health care approach emphasizes the connection of mind, body, and spirit.
Students are taught to look at organ systems in medical school and training, whether it’s a cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine system, for example. We are trained to look at differential diagnosis when considering a diagnosis. What if we consistently take this holistic approach and not look at each system in isolation? After practicing family medicine, it gave me the ability to look at the whole person. Due to the nature of the physician-patient relationship, as a primary care provider, I was allowed to get to know my patients on a long-term basis. Often I not only looked at the patient at that moment in time. I was able to look back at their history. I was usually able to detect changes in their emotional and physical states even before the patient was aware of these things or was willing to acknowledge the difference. I presumed my keen ability to do this part of my intuitive nature.
Intuitive people commonly have excellent, empathetic abilities meaning that they can easily sense others are thinking and feeling. As an intuitive thinker, I can see beyond just what might be there at the skin surface and look much deeper. In the practice of holistic health, we must spend time listening to what our patients are telling us and paying attention to the details. One also has to have the ability to read in beneath the lines.
For physicians to be the healers we are supposed to be, the work has to begin in the lives of each physician. I cannot stress this enough. Optimal health boils down to personal responsibility and accountability for one’s own health choices.
As physicians, it becomes incredibly challenging to effectively motivate your patients and clients in areas that you have not overcome. When I have had conversations with my patients and clients about challenging life changes they need to go through, I first recognize that change is not easy and that many of us struggle with healthy lifestyle choices. However, by normalizing human struggles, it is less likely the patient will feel judged. When caring for others, I let them know that when I’m preaching to them, I’m also preaching to myself. By doing this, they know that they are not alone and that I’m not asking for something impossible.
A holistic approach to health and wellness requires openness and vulnerability, as well as accountability. A crucial part of this approach is the personal responsibility piece. It is easy to blame others for one’s challenges, and blame genetics for specific diagnoses is. True, there are situations in our lives that seem out of our control. However, we have control of how we respond to situations. One can either minimize and deny health challenges are not take them seriously. Or, one can take empowered actionable steps to mitigate risks and improve overall health status. My goal is that most people choose the latter choice, and as physicians and healers, we do the same.
When one can empathize and put themselves involved in the shoes of another person, the communication improves. Frequently I see a disconnect as the care provider tries to relate with the patient or client through their place of privilege. Not everybody has been afforded the same access to the resources and support that physicians have been given. This point underscores the importance of taking the time to understand the whole person.
Time is a valuable resource, and we are only given a finite amount of time in a given day. Despite good intentions, often in a busy clinic or hospital, we only have a minimal amount of time to connect with the patient. At this point, the default response is to deal with the higher-level concerns without going too deeply into the underlying contributing factors. This lack of time in most health care models and delivery systems has contributed to the overwhelming demand for health care services due to staggering rates of chronic illnesses.
It is time to evaluate how health care is delivered and realize that there is time and space for holistic care providers. We often talk that prevention is better than a cure. Still, sadly, in medicine, the reality is we are constantly working on treatment because preventative steps were not taken in a timely and consistent manner. I encourage you, readers, to reflect in your own life and see what areas you need to work on. We often have resistance to discuss certain topics, or perhaps we build walls on specific issues because we are still struggling with those issues or perhaps in denial of the problems. So, would it be safe to say that if we are physicians and healers, optimize our health, would that reflect our patients’ health?
Tomi Mitchell is a family physician.
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