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Reflections on the Sorry State of America’s Healthcare System

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Monday, January 10, 2011

Like many progressive people in the USA, I was extremely disappointed in the weak, watered down healthcare reforms that were passed by congress during this past year.  Even though it could be argued that the healthcare reform bill that was passed was a major step in ending the worst abuses of the private, for-profit health insurance industry, those same hopelessly greedy, corrupt and inflated private health insurance providers were left in place, with no new, government sponsored health insurance or healthcare alternatives for the public to turn to.

Once again, Americans, supposedly living in the land of the free, are left without a real, significant alternative to turn to when they are looking for healthcare.  And all this in spite of the fact that many of the founding fathers wanted assurances of medical freedom, and the right of the individual to decide what is done to or put into his or her body, written into the laws of the land.

Benjamin Rush, President George Washington’s personal physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wanted a clause written into the US Constitution that would guarantee the individual’s medical freedom of choice.  And Thomas Jefferson supposedly said that to have the government decide or dictate to you what you could or couldn’t eat amounted to tyranny.  Yet the sad truth about American healthcare today is that the public’s freedom of choice and access to insurance providers and treatment options and modalities is still quite limited and circumscribed, and public health officials routinely interfere with an individual’s God given right to decide what they put into or do to their bodies.

Many modern day Americans, even those who consider themselves educated and enlightened, assume that there is nothing essentially wrong with the healthcare and medical treatment system in the USA today.  The only problem, as far as they can see, is that it costs too much, and that greedy, for-profit insurance companies capriciously deny coverage to those who need expensive medical interventions the most, because of their prohibitive cost vis-a-vis the insurance companies’ insatiable desire to boost their profits, and their bottom line.

But pioneering physicians in the field of integrative medicine, like Dr. Andrew Weil, have said that the popular assumption that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, and all that needs to be reformed is its financial infrastructure and accessibility, is erroneous.  We need fundamental reforms in the way medicine is practiced, on a disease by disease basis, towards more cost effective solutions and treatments that are genuinely in the best interests of the patient.  Where possible and advisable, we need a shift away from the expensive, invasive, high tech interventions of modern medicine, towards more natural, less invasive, and more cost effective complementary and alternative treatments and modalities.  And above all, we need to practice more preventive medicine, to catch and reverse incipient chronic degenerative diseases in their initial stages, before they demand expensive and invasive modern medical interventions.

To use a trendy modern buzzword, we need a major paradigm shift in our approach to medicine, and how it is practiced.  And there are already those on the cutting edge of integrative medicine, like Dr. Weil and others, who are doing their best to deliver the best possible healthcare to their patients, incorporating a diverse array of treatments and modalities, according to what is in the best interest of the patient.

The American public, this vast sea of healthcare consumers, is desperately looking for something natural, and will go to great lengths to get it.  This is evidenced by the enormous sums of money they are willing to spend on alternative and complementary treatments and medicines, including supplements and herbs, mostly out of pocket, without any financial help or assistance from the health insurance industry.  Without a doubt, this is because their own personal experience with these medicines and treatments has thoroughly convinced them of their worth.  And, best of all, these medicines and treatments are very user friendly, and have few, if any, negative side effects.  Without a doubt, these health conscious consumers of complementary and alternative treatments and medicines have appreciated the great wisdom of Hippocrates’ healing maxim, “First, do no harm.”

I often like to say that it’s amazing that, with all the latest, greatest modern medical technology and research facilities at their disposal, the pharmaceutical industry has not come up with medicines that work any better than they do, with their long lists of harmful and debilitating side effects that are often worse than the disease they are supposed to treat.  Why is this so?  Perhaps, just maybe, and let me play the devil’s advocate here, it’s because the human organism, having evolved for thousands and even millions of years in a natural environment, consuming plants, herbs, minerals and other natural substances, has acclimated itself to them.  And so, when any unnatural, synthetic drug or substance is administered, this violates the body’s own inherent healing wisdom, which is even programmed into its genetic material.  This, of course, deranges the immune responses, metabolism and natural humoral balance and homeostasis of the body, creating numerous negative side effects.

I am not saying that all modern synthetic drugs are harmful and unnecessary.  In many cases, powerful drugs have been developed which are real lifesavers, especially in acute medical emergencies where the patient’s life is in grave danger.  But when it comes to the chronic degenerative diseases that are the number one bane of modern man, and which consume the lion’s share of the healthcare dollar, synthetic pharmaceutical drugs are, more often than not, on more dubious and uncertain therapeutic ground.  Many are prohibitively expensive, are of questionable effectiveness and value to the patient, and have a whole host of harmful and debilitating side effects, many of which are potentially lethal, or are worse than the disease they are supposed to treat.

So why do the pharmaceutical companies persist in this single minded commitment to “better living through chemistry”, and why do they so relentlessly push their synthetic drugs, in spite of their numerous drawbacks?  In investigating this problem, as with so many other crimes, the general rule is to follow the money.  The drug companies want, above all, a substance that they can patent and own, and have exclusive control over – including the profits and revenue from its sales.  And to patent a drug, they have to invent it and synthesize it as a completely new substance in the laboratory.  And with herbs and other natural substances, God owns the patent, and He isn’t selling out!

Back in the good ole days, in your great grandmother’s time or beyond, most patent medicines were herbally based.  The manufacturer obtained a patent on the particular formulation of ingredients that was in his natural medicine, but this did not assure total, absolute control over his idea and the potential profits it could generate.  Another competitor could come along and, with a minor variation or adjustment to the original formulation, patent his own medicine that worked about as well as the original.

The great thing about herbs and the other natural substances that are used in the medicinal formulations of all the world’s great traditional healing systems, including Greek Medicine and Unani Tibb, is that these medicinal substances have been in actual clinical use on humans for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.  And so, everything that they do to people, and all their clinical and therapeutic actions and effects, be they good, bad or indifferent, are thoroughly known and tested already.

With synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, on the other hand, the opposite is the case.  When they are first synthesized, they are totally unknown substances, especially where their clinical and therapeutic effects on humans are concerned.  And so, to determine their safety and clinical effectiveness, extensive testing, first on lab animals, and then on actual human beings, must be done, which can be quite a long and expensive process.  And these costs are, of course, passed along to the consumer in the cost of the finished product as it goes to market.

When I was a student in acupuncture school, our professor of Western medicine was a licensed naturopathic doctor.  There were two sides to his podium as he lectured us on medicine.  When he stood on one side, he gave the conventional modern medical approach and perspective on various conditions and their treatments; on the other side, he would stand on his naturopathic “soapbox” and tell us all the flaws and drawbacks of the approach he had just explained to us.

One of the things that this naturopathic doctor liked to tell us is that about 80 percent of the pharmaceutical drugs in use today weren’t in use 20 years ago.  Why is this so?  Because, even with the best and most extensive animal testing and clinical trials available, not all negative side effects are uncovered.  One has only to think of the Thalidomide babies to know that this is all too often the case.  But also, many of the negative effects of new drugs that are put on the market are quite subtle, or may not show up until twenty or more years of regular use have gone by.  And the final possible reason is that in many cases, such vast sums of money are spent in the testing and clinical trials of a new drug that tremendous finanical pressure is brought to bear by the pharmaceutical companies, and research findings are corrupted and corners cut in the process of bringing their drug to market.

This brings one to a couple of sobering realizations that must be taken into consideration when or if you are deciding whether or not to use a particular pharmaceutical drug:

1)  That the blissfully unaware American public is, unknowingly to them, being used as guinea pigs in the vast, real life laboratory that is the American healthcare system.

2)  If you are truly concerned, first and foremost, about drug safety above all other considerations, that you are much better off going with an older drug that has been in actual clinical use for 20 years or longer, and ignoring all the hype about the latest “wonder” drug.  Not only are the older drugs safer, but they are also cheaper, and in many cases much cheaper, than the newer drugs, many of which can be prohibitively expensive.  That’s because their research and development costs have long since been recouped.

Our naturopathic Western medicine professor also used to like to tell us that if our country and its healthcare system were truly and sincerely interested, first and foremost, in helping the patient and providing him or her with the best, least potentially damaging or invasive healthcare possible, that our medical system would spend a lot more of its time, money and resources developing and perfecting natural and alternative modalities and treatments.  From the state of our healthcare system today, he would tell us, the only thing that a thinking and rational person can conclude is that patients and their welfare are definitely given a backseat to the medical profits made from expensive, invasive and often unnecessary drugs and treatments.

And surgery is another branch of modern medicine that can also be over-glorified.  Although surgeons are often seen as the demigods of modern medicine, historically, surgeons and their art have not been held in that high esteem.  In medieval and early modern times, barbers often doubled as surgeons; this surgical past is the reason why the revolving poles outside barber shops have red and white stripes: red for the blood, and white for the surgical bandages.  In the early, pre-modern era of surgery, the surgical option was often quite disfiguring and debilitating.

But with the tremendous advances in modern science and technology, great technical advances have been made in surgical materials and techniques, and modern surgery, where it is truly necessary and the best option, can do wonders.  Dr. Andrew Weil wrote in one of his books that, if he were hit by a truck, he would want nothing better than to be put back together again by modern orthopedic surgeons.

One of my friends in acupuncture school – or was it my naturopathic Western Medicine teacher? – once told me that you can think of modern MDs, especially surgeons, as “body mechanics”.  In other words, in their mechanistic, reductionistic view of the human body as nothing more than a very sophisticated machine, they view the body as something like your automobile, whose parts need repair or replacement after a certain amount of use or mileage has been put on them.

Greek Medicine and other traditional healing systems are, on the other hand, vitalistic in nature, in that they place great faith in the body’s own God given Vital Force, or Life Force, called Pneuma in Greek Medicine, Qi in Chinese Medicine, and Prana in Ayurvedic Medicine.  It is this indwelling Spirit, or Life Force, that endows the human organism with a natural biological intelligence and an ability to heal and regenerate itself.

Now surgery, however great its achievements or benefits might be, is probably the branch of medicine that places the least emphasis on the body’s ability to heal and regenerate itself.  When the body is physically or physiologically broken beyond its capacity for natural healing and regeneration, the surgeon fixes it either structurally or functionally, or both.  But even so, the natural healing and regeneration processes of the human organism are necessary to heal the wounds and trauma of surgery.

Continuing our analogy of surgeons to the mechanics who work on your car, it is also true that many surgeons, especially those who are out to make a quick buck, recommend surgical procedures that are unnecessary, simply to line their pockets.  In many cases in modern medicine, the way it is practiced in the USA and other technologically advanced Western nations today, surgeries are routinely done as the standard treatment procedure, even on diseases and disorders that do not absolutely require them.

In Chinese hospitals, gall stones are frequently dissolved with regimens of herbal decoctions, at only a fraction of the cost for the surgical removal of the gall bladder, which is the standard treatment procedure for this condition in the West.  This can be done even if the gall stones are larger than the bile duct, by slowly softening and dissolving them so that they can pass through.  It is even possible to embark on a regimen that enables you to do this at home, utilizing materials that are available in your local supermarket.  But, to be on the safe side, of course, I would do this under medical supervision.

Surgeons who are advocating gall bladder removal like to characterize the gall bladder as nothing more than an unnecessary, vestigial organ.  At best, they see the gall bladder as somewhat of a ticking time bomb that may go off at any moment, especially considering all the abuse that is heaped upon it by our modern fast food diet.

But the gall bladder is far from a vestigial organ; it is absolutely necessary for the proper and optimal digestion and metabolism of fats and lipids.  Most of those who have had their gall bladder removed are no longer able to digest and metabolize fats and lipids properly, and usually wind up becoming overweight or obese for life, suffering all the usual health problems and risks that go with it.

The gall bladder is just one example; there are many other organs that are routinely removed when they don’t have to be, when some less invasive, natural treatment can save them.  But this overuse of surgery is not just the fault of greedy or avaricious surgeons; surgery is also touted as the quick fix, and appeals to those who lack the discipline, patience and resolve necessary to go the natural route and take charge of their own health and wellbeing.  This reminds me of a radio show I was listening to in my car one morning.  They were interviewing a heart transplant recipient right after his surgery, and the first thing he wanted was an ice cold beer!

But the flip side of the quick fix is that you have to live with its consequences, that some important aspect of the body and its natural functioning has been lost or impaired forever.  With gall bladder removal, it’s obesity and cholesterol problems; with a hysterectomy, it’s going into instant menopause, way before one’s natural time.  With organ transplants, it’s massive immunosuppression to get the recipient’s body to accept the new and foreign organ.  But from modern medicine’s profit oriented perspective, this only makes more business for the prescription of statin drugs and  hormone replacement pills.

So many women, by the time they get into their fifties, have lost their uterus that sometimes it seems to me that women who are fifty – plus and still have their uterus must definitely be in the minority!  Yet there are natural treatments, using herbs and / or enzymes, that can slowly reduce or dissolve cysts and fibroid tumors in the uterus.  If more women were even aware that such natural alternatives existed, I’m sure that many would be inclined to choose them, even though it might take more effort, patience and persistence on their part.  And it would definitely save the patient, and our healthcare system, a lot of money in the process to go the cheaper, low tech route.

Another surgical procedure that is greatly glorified these days is the gastric bypass surgery, or what I like to call “stomach stapling”.  To forcefully, invasively and unnaturally reduce the amount of food that a seriously obese person eats, the stomach is stapled and greatly reduced in size.  This drastic and draconian surgical procedure is relentlessly pushed on TV, on “health” channels, where they dramatize that the patient has responsibly chosen this option after considering all the pros and cons.

But a chronically obese cousin of mine who had this procedure done, and who lived in Minnesota, died suddenly one frigid winter night, her  body quickly succumbing to pneumonia.  It seems as if the drastically restricted diet that her artificially shrunken stomach had reduced her to lacked the sufficient breadth and variety necessary to ensure a healthy, robust immune response and defenses, and her weakened body was unable to resist the sudden onslaught of pathogenic microbes to her respiratory tract.  And her case also makes me wonder how many other hidden downsides of the stomach stapling surgery were also carefully hidden from view in the TV docudramas on the procedure.

All too often, drastic surgery to, or removal of, an organ or body part is the final, last ditch effort for the survival of the patient after a long downward spiral of chronic and degenerative disease.  We definitely need to be more vigilant and watchful in our screening and detection of these chronic and degenerative disorders and catch them in their beginning stages, before the colostomy or the cardiac bypass surgery becomes inevitable.  And we should much more fully utilize and exploit all the healing resources that traditional, holistic and alternative modalities and treatments have to offer in the practice of preventive medicine, even for diseases that are considered to be incurable by modern methods.

Before deciding on undergoing a surgical procedure, one must carefully weigh all the pros and cons, and be thorough in one’s research to uncover all the cons and downsides of the procedure, even ones that may not be readily apparent, as well as to uncover any natural, non surgical, less invasive treatment options that might exist.  What is the prognosis or natural progression of the disease or disorder you are facing if the surgery is not undertaken, and can you live with it?  And will the quality of your life after the surgery is done really be enough of an improvement, all things considered, to warrant the expense and the potential drawbacks of the surgical solution?  It must also be remembered that all surgery involves  a certain amount of trauma and wounding, and enough time and leisure must be allotted after the surgery to enable the body to heal properly and sufficiently.

To conclude, there are a lot of things that are wrong with the American healthcare system today, from a variety of different perspectives – financial, legal, medical and patients’ rights, to name a few.  As a progressive, I believe that universal, guaranteed healthcare should be a basic human right, not a priviledge accorded only to the wealthy.  And as a believer in, and practitioner of, natural medicine and preventive healthcare, I believe that preventive medicine and more natural, less invasive and less costly treatment options should be more fully integrated into our healthcare system, and that no truly satisfactory, permanent resolution to our current healthcare crisis is possible without this happening.

With “Obamacare” or the recent health reform legislation passed in the US, especially considering how limited and watered-down it truly is, it never ceases to amaze me how crazy, stupid and paranoid all this right wing resistance to it is.  And how based in fear, and even outright lies, this resistance is.  The biggest lie about it is that it is a government takeover of healthcare, when nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, it actually leaves exclusive dominion of our healthcare system to the private health insurance mafia, and the foxes are still in charge of the henhouse, with no real viable alternative to this closed shop monopoly.

The sad truth is that the USA still lags way behind the other advanced nations of the world, most of which have some version of universal healthcare.  And all this despite the fact that it has been a fight, a cause or crusade, that has been going on in this country for about a hundred years.  But when you get right down to it, universal healthcare is by no means a new or modern idea; even the ancient Romans had their own version of it, and considered a healthy populace to be a universal benefit accruing to the overall wellbeing of the empire.  Healthcare should be a universal human right, and not just a privilege awarded to the lucky few who can afford it.

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