Modern medicine is a wonder. It’s fantastic how much we’ve discovered and developed, particularly over the last 100 years in human history. Our population has flourished because our lifespan is longer and we don’t have the same threats of infectious diseases and injury to our mortality. Technological advances have allowed us to detect, diagnose and treat many illnesses and conditions. The fields of radiology, pharmacology, nuclear medicine, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology, for example, have been the celebrated darlings of modern medicine and this is where our attention and investment has predominantly gone.
Yet, the state of our health in Australia is far from ideal. While we’ve made great advances in emergency medicine, saving people when they have heart attacks, motor vehicle accidents, and infectious diseases, modern medicine has not done as well with the greatest burden on our population: chronic disease. These are the kinds of diseases that are often the result of lifestyle choices, genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
Chronic diseases are the bane and the major burden on our public health system and government budgets. They are the leading cause of actual death, accounting for 90% of all deaths! Chronic diseases are also the cause of much personal pain and suffering for the individual, not only from the symptoms of their condition(s) but in the flow on effects into their working lives, relationships, self-esteem and self-care. Modern medicine seeks to “manage symptoms” rather than solve the problem and ‘heal’ the disease. Why this is the case is up for debate – it’s ok to question the current model and to encourage continued improvement.
Regardless, in the Western world many people have handed over the responsibility for their physical health to doctors, pharmaceutical companies and fate (or God). We’ve done this because we’ve been told it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, and we’ve been taught from a young age to revere doctors, trust them and do what they say. Our current health system over-relies on General Practitioners, whose average consultation time is a mere 7 minutes. Doctors are often overburdened, stressed and may not be fully up-to-date with recent research. Misdiagnosis rates are approx. 10-15% and it’s understandable given the pressure on GPs to see as many patients as possible. It’s understandable that the system may not be meeting everyone’s needs, and causing more problems as a result.
However, more and more people are looking beyond traditional medical avenues and exploring different options for answers. No one likes the unpleasant or sometimes even potentially lethal side-effects of modern medical treatments, or being rushed during a medical consultation. There is an ever-stronger demand for ‘natural’ therapies and treatments, and for more ‘patient-centred’, holistic healthcare. When modern medicine presents treatment options that are unsatisfactory, undesirable or non-existent, people are evermore looking beyond its scope for other options and choices.
It’s ok to look broader, wider and deeper into ways to treat and heal chronic diseases. Fortunately, there are alternative healing and medical paradigms and systems that already exist and are onto this task. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is one of these, which is where most people who are checking out of the conventional medical system have been turning. There are also models which embrace both modern medicine and CAM, including the systems of Integrative Medicine and Functional Medicine.
Here are some alarming, current statistics according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:
- About half our population currently have a chronic disease and 1 in 5 are affected by multiple chronic illnesses; this is the same statistic in the United States of America
- Cardiovascular disease affects 1 in 5 Australians (22%) aged 18+
- While survival rates of cancer have improved, in 2009 the risk of being diagnosed with cancer before the age of 85 was 1 in 2 for males, and 1 in 3 for females
- Chronic kidney disease affects 1 in 10 Australian adults
- Almost all Australians aged 15 and over (99%) have at least one risk factor for poorer health (such as high blood pressure or poor nutrition), and 1 in 7 have 5 or more risk factors.
- 4% of the population have diabetes and a much greater, yet unquantifiable, percentage have markers of pre-diabetes or Metabolic Syndrome (also known as Syndrome X)
- Approximately 1 in 5 Australians aged 16-85 have experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months; 1 in 7 children were assessed as having a mental health disorder
- In comparison to other developed countries, Australia has one of the highest rates of obesity, with 1 in 4 Australian adults and 1 in 12 children being obese.
- Over 1 in 4 Australian (28%) report having arthritis or other musculoskeletal condition (including back problems, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis)
- 3 in 10 adults aged 25-44 have untreated tooth decay
- 1 in 10 Australians have asthma
- Autoimmune diseases (of which there are many, some common ones are Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Rheumatoid Arthritis) affect 1 in 20 Australians
How did we manage to make so many advancements in our technology and understanding of the human body, and yet our state of health be so concerning? The effects of chronic disease are not just on the individual person with a health condition; it flows into our workplaces, relationships, communities, health system and ultimately into our economy. People are struggling to address and overcome the psychological and behavioural contributors to poor health (lifestyle factors) that are statistically the main contributors to the chronic illness epidemic.
As we have discovered, modern medicine can provide many answers and solutions, but not all. In the space of chronic disease there is both disillusionment with the current medical system and also opportunity for improvement. Perhaps it’s time we all agreed to look beyond the old biomedical model and look to parallel healing systems for options and enlightenment. This is where mind-body medicine, as part of a more integrative or functional healthcare approach, can offer so much. We need to address the psychological, emotional, behavioural, spiritual and social factors that both contribute to, and assist in the recovery of, disease.