Woodson C. Merrell, MD, Sc.D. is the Chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and the Executive Director of the Center for Health and Healing in New York City.
It is the USA’s largest primary care-based academic integrative medical centre and is dedicated to providing clinical care, education, and research for consumers and medical professionals, combining the best of evidence-based conventional medicine, complementary/alternative medicine and indigenous medical/wisdom traditions.
Dr Merrell passionately believes that integrative medicine is the future of medicine, that there is significant evidence-basis for its use right now. We interviewed him at the College of Medicine’s recent conference in Bangalore.
How does the work you’re involved with help patients on a day to day basis?
We see about 5000 patients a month. One of the critical things about our work is all its providers are integrated with each other, so it’s not just individually that they’re doing an integrative approach, the whole organisation is truly integrative in nature. The fact that the acupuncturist, the family physician, the paediatrician etc. all work together in a multidisciplinary fashion is one of our best attributes. So people can come into the centre and have global healthcare with many different specialities. They don’t have to traipse to different sites around the city to find a reliable/solid practitioner. It also gives people an opportunity to do a more global approach
What sort of shifts/benefits are you seeing in your patients?
Patients feel so lucky there’s a place they can come to that is so wonderful.
It’s structurally beautiful and the design is gorgeous – the energy is incredibly good. The staff are very well trained in hospitality and are highly compassionate. It’s the way every place should be – especially in healthcare when people are suffering, They shouldn’t be treated rudely, which is maybe the norm more than it should be.
We’ve been talking a lot about the need for a paradigm shift in the way we’re working with people with long term conditions. Do you see it happening in your area of work?
It’s going to go on forever – it’s an evolution, but what’s clear to many of us working in this field is that although it may look really slow from the outside, in the last 15 years it has been almost revolutionary. The change is already happening – the shift in the mentality, the fact that many of the nation’s medical school deans are saying integrative medicine is the medicine of the future and medical training and care demonstrates this.
Certainly the insurance companies and legislation will follow father behind. The other interesting thing is that the main driver in this is the consumers. It’s the first time there has been a major paradigm shift in healthcare which has been driven by the consumer. For the most part in the first 5 or 10 years the doctors were dragged kicking and screaming into this as the patients were demanding it and showing doctors that there was evidence for it. Drs are begrudgingly but increasingly welcoming the integrative physician. They are beginning to realise that there are things that even if they didn’t learn them in medical school they can be safe, gentle and effective. So even if they can’t do it themselves the knowledge that it exists and that there are credible centres like mine that they can send people to that are all credentialed and certified providers all helps. There are now 60 medical schools that have integrative centres in the US.
What are your aspirations for the future of your project?
To make the wealth of offerings that we’re fortunate to have in New York City, available elsewhere. Although nobody quite knows how Obama Care is ultimately going to play out, it will certainly allow access to those who haven’t been able to afford it to get health care. The challenge is to provide meaningful health care, not just a quick visit to get a pill. Way too often the average consultation time is only 7 minutes. With integrative medicine you have a little bit more time to look at the root cause. The wonderful thing about what we’re doing is the fact that the core of all health recommendations is lifestyle based. So it’s not just about taking pills or doing procedures, it’s about reducing your stress, eating well, not being toxic, resting enough, moving enough and being connected. Patient’s need to not so much be taught these, but reminded of them – they certainly shouldn’t just be an after-thought. Dean Ornish’s work has shown that you can reverse fixed heart disease by doing these things. The most powerful medicine is lifestyle change.
What’s the most positive idea or connection you’ve gained from coming to the conference?
Coming to India is like coming to the motherland. For the last 3000 years, they’ve been doing this incredibly wise indigenous system of healthcare that’s completely integrated. Mind-body-spirit is all part of what they do in their life and much of their medical approach with traditions like Ayurveda. In India it’s a completely holistic system and although I know it exists, to be immersed in it is really wonderful.
I think it’s interesting in how many of the Ayurvedic practitioners can’t wait to work more with their more conventional colleagues. The training in India is wonderful conventionally and although maybe some of the more conservative doctors don’t believe in Ayurveda, their grandmothers and their parents do and eventually it might come back to their roots and actually see that it needs to be part of a
global approach to their healthcare. Every nation has its indigenous health care system and even practices where they don’t have indigenous herbs or other technique, there’s focus on having a healthy lifestyle or connecting with nature.
There are some great studies on this – one study showed putting a fish tank in the doctors waiting room increased wellbeing. The larger the better! There’s another study that I love where people were given plants in nursing home. When people were simply given a plant and told – here’s a plant, I hope you enjoy it and when they were told – here’s a plant, whether it lives or dies depends on the care and nurture that you give it, their immune systems were dramatically stronger than those who were just given a plant and told I hope you enjoy it. This shows the amazing benefits that simply connecting with nature can bring about.