“We can’t find a cause for your symptoms/there’s nothing wrong with you/it’s all in your head/you’re just getting older/you’ll just have to live with this/there’s nothing we can do.” 

Have you said this to your patients, or had this said to you or someone you know, but you know deep inside that there is definitely something wrong? If so, you are not alone.

As a GP in the conventional medical system for 18 years, I know it only gets serious with health once patients have developed a diagnosable disease; they are then managed by following pathways.

This ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach is great for when patients are having a heart attack or have experienced trauma, but we as practitioners must be the ambulance at the top of the cliff. This is the beauty of integrative medicine, which looks for all the little biochemical clues before disease develops.

Another way to understand the difference between conventional and integrative medicine is to think of any symptom as a warning light on a car dashboard. Conventional medicine covers the warning light with medication and/or operations; integrative medicine gets under the patient’s ‘car bonnet’ to find why the warning light is on.

Additionally, as a conventional GP I was seeing an increasing epidemic of patients with multiple medical problems and also younger and younger people with a plethora of vague symptoms and no energy. I had also been failed personally by conventional medicine when I became sick about five years ago.

Some economic forecasters predict that the Western world’s health economies will struggle to continue in their current form by around 2050, due to the increasing burden of chronic disease and ageing populations. In order to continue be able to serve our patients, we have to be honest, be brave, stop being pharmaceutical company ‘pawns’ and truly heal our patients with nutritional and environmental tools.

Any symptom, however minor or vague, is a sign that something is out of order in our patients. There is no such thing as ‘it’s all in their minds’ and we are doing our patients a huge disservice by implying that is the case. Of course, the mind can create body symptoms but just as importantly, the body can create mind symptoms. Unless we take the time to untangle this chicken-and-egg scenario, we can’t help our patients. Absolutely, we may need to use medication temporarily to help our patients reach a point where they can manage their symptoms through truly effective and long-lasting integrative medicine tools, but medications should be just that – temporary.

I admit that before I started specialising in integrative medicine I had started to become weighed down by the increasing numbers of what many practitioners call ‘heartsink’ patients with a multitude of vague symptoms. Top this off with pressure to order fewer and fewer blood tests in our patients and we have a recipe for disillusioned doctors with the highest rate of suicide of any professionals.

Integrative medicine ‘rescued’ me from this quagmire of despair and gave me all the tools I need to make a noticeable difference to any patient as long if they are prepared to put the effort in to make the prescribed changes.

Integrative medicine does not accept leaving patients with ‘functional’ disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and fibromyalgia as conditions for our patients to just put up with. Try telling that to any patient, let alone an 11-year-old previously sporty boy like the one I recently saw who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after a gut infection. Multiple specialists told him to just go home and wait to get better.

When I saw this boy after he had spent months lying in bed; we started him on a range of integrative medicine techniques and now he’s out of bed and back doing all his favourite sports. As an adult this would mean he would be out working and contributing to society instead of adding to the already overloaded healthcare and social welfare burden. This amazing result took one hour with him and an hour after that to work out what the underlying biochemical disruptions were and how to correct them.

I realise that we don’t have the luxury of this amount of time with our patients in the public sector, but a lot can be achieved in a few 15-minute appointments. We just need to be brave as practitioners and let our patients know we can’t untangle their issues in one 15-minute appointment. We also need to be brave in not lining drug company pockets by taking the easy road of prescribing a medication unless absolutely essential. Will you be brave today?

Dr Tracy Chandler BSc (Hons) MBChB FRNZCGP FNZSCM, PGDipSEM, Cert Dermoscopy, Cert Homeopathy, MACNEM member gained her medical degree in England. She worked as a general practitioner in Timaru before doing postgraduate training in sports, skin and integrative medicine. Her decision to specialise in integrative (wellness) medicine followed her increasing interest in the impact of nutrition and environment on health and wellbeing.

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