“There’s a lot of things wrong within the healthcare industry today,” the newspapers and TV anchors on primetime will say, but there’s also quite a bit right about it too. Then how is that you can feel so confused and alone after you leave your doctor’s office, wondering what to do next as you walk back through the parking lot or down into the subway car to go home? The answer, in a nutshell, is both the extreme strength and the extreme weakness of our western medical system. And it all has to do with the concept of “specialization.”
What's Wrong with Being Even More Specialized?
Specialization essentially refers to the splitting up and separation of the traditional medical/doctor function into narrowly-focused, yet highly knowledgeable, sub-disciplines. The old fashioned, classic model of the family doctor visiting you at your home with his stethoscope in hand and his little black bag of elixirs and economy-sized pharmaceuticals are long gone in this country. There’s a reason why it’s referred to as a healthcare “industry” or “system” and that’s because the role of caretaker and doctor has become much, much more complex… and much more sterile.
Unfortunately, the term “sterile” here goes far beyond the definition of “sanitization and thorough cleaning practice.” With insurance oversight, litigation policies, and bureaucratic red tape, it has become harder and harder for doctors to connect openly, and humanely, with their patients.
What I’m referring to here is called empathy. Believe it or not, empathy is actually taught as a class in most medical schools.
Why Don't You Tell Me How You're Feeling?
Emotions, feelings, presentation, bedside manner — these all play an essential role in the comfortability and quality of care that you, the patient, rightfully require in your healing process. In a classic sense, the doctor, or healthcare provider, should be more than a healer or “curer” for you, he or she should be someone that will “care” for your overall wellbeing.
In fact, the origin of the word “to cure” in ancient Latin literally means “to care.” The two terms are inseparable.
Today, naturally, times and practices have evolved to such a degree that you could be cured of an illness like pneumonia, using a straight up course of high-powered antibiotics, without caring at all for the personal touch of the ordering physician.
In my experience, the closest person you will get to replacing the holistic doctor of times past — at least in terms of function — will be your primary care physician, or general internist. However, this gatekeeper role has been slowly shifting over the past couple of decades. So don’t be too surprised if your physical therapist, acupuncturist, or dietitian-nutritionist will occasionally step outside of the box for you and advocate for a more comprehensive plan of care.
On a More Personal Note...
I remember about twenty years ago, in the earliest days of my training as a physical therapist, that there was a primary care doctor in our clinic named Dr. Hamm, who would evaluate all the injured patients right before they were admitted to me. He always told me, “First make sure the patient is taken care of, then worry about the technicalities and formalities of all your documentation and note writing. Stay in the moment. Make sure to connect with the patient so that they feel better after leaving you!”
He also frequently said, “ I don’t know much about specifics of illnesses and disease, but I do recognize when I see something that doesn’t look normal. That’s when I refer out to a specialist!”
Back again we return, inevitably, to the participation of “the specialist.” It almost seems like a love-hate relationship, where we want a holistic approach — someone to care for us as the whole person, to connect all the dots — but we also demand the top, precise level of expertise from the specialist. From the western medicine viewpoint, the terms “holistic” and “expert” cannot be any further apart.
Let me explain why… and also why I keep referencing “western” with all these negative traits attached.
The West Is More than Just a Place.
“West” in terms of western medicine, or western knowledge, is not really used as a geographic term — it’s cultural or philosophical. It’s cultural for us because we’re comfortable with the philosophy of “you can’t say it, unless you can prove it.” Therefore, our culture is based on consistently seeking out new inventions and proving new things. That is how we grow, onward and upward! That is how we’ve grown all along, from flying planes to curing polio.
I was taught an analogy in acupuncture school that I believe is really quite helpful in this example. Think of a tree growing towards the sky, with each small branch dividing into smaller and smaller branches than the ones before it —growing more particular towards the tiniest leaf at the very end. This leaf is the “specialist” while the trunk is the “holistic.” The specialist has come, or “grown,” quite a long way to get to the far end of the branch of his or her knowledge, but has tremendous difficulty when trying to reach over to another specialty, of another “leaf” on another branch.
Never mind connecting leaf to leaf, trying to connect a branch to another branch is challenging enough.
How Does This Tree Story Apply to Me Now?
You see this all the time when you visit a doctor. For example, if you go to a shoulder surgeon or orthopedist because you have a rotator cuff problem, you may also complain of associated neck pain because it is right next to the injured area. In many instances, shoulder specialists will refer you out to a neck or spinal specialist for examination because the neck region is out of their immediate scope of expertise. When actually, the straightforward explanation of your neck pain can typically be explained by excessive compensation and undue burden on the neck muscles from trying to lift your injured shoulder.
This is no fault of the shoulder surgeon. He is a fine product of the system that trained him. In fact, he is such a fine product that you would be foolish not to go to him if you want a top quality orthopedic repair of your injured rotator cuff muscle. But holistic, he is not…
I realized this disadvantage within myself too, at the onset of my career as a physical therapist, and that is ultimately what drove me to attend acupuncture, or “eastern medicine,” schooling.
Taking a Far Look In the Eastern Direction...
Eastern medicine and philosophy is rooted in the universal concept of yin and yang, or the interconnectedness of all things. Any illness, no matter how new or complex, can always be broken down into the simplest components of its yin and yang, plus and minus, interactions. It’s like viewing a photograph in the newspaper. All the details and distinctive characteristics are really, at closer inspection, just a carefully selected series of black and white dots.
So, you’ve dabbled into the East and drudged through the West. We’ve talked specialists and classics, black and white… a lot about trees — where does that leave you now? You need a guide, someone who speaks the language, someone who can bring the strengths of the medical system to your fingertips while keeping the weaknesses at bay.
The bottom line at the end of the day that determines the right doctor for you, is comfortability. Does this doctor speak your language, that is… the language of “you?” If you’re too afraid to call your doctor during the week and talk with him on the phone about something important that really troubles you, then it’s probably a good idea to look around for a second opinion.
Where Do You Go From Here?
The first step on the path toward healing begins with the desire to help yourself. You’re reading this article. We’ve begun to talk together. That’s a step.
Schedule a complimentary consultation with us, and we can continue this journey together.