Critical Health Care Challenges: Integrating the Whole Person


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Joanne Pizzino, MD, MPH, is board-certified in Preventive Medicine and diplomate-certified in Integrative Medicine. After her own self-empowered healing epiphany in 1997, she has guided people to live healthier through both Eastern and Western medicine, ancient and ultra-high-tech healing.

By Joanne Pizzino, MD, MPH
Medical Editor, Health&Healing

Dr. Pizzino

“How’s that workin’ for ya?”
Dr. Phil

In the midst of the most technologically advanced health care in the history of humankind, we also find that death due to iatrogenic disease (meaning caused by medical treatment or diagnostic procedures) is the fourth leading cause of death in the US. While life expectancy expands, we also lead the world in number of years of disability before death. Greater access to more specialized care has not resulted in more wellness, as we also lead the world in number of medications taken per person. More than one out of five college freshmen use prescribed psychotropic (mental health) medications. Conclusion: More health care does not necessarily mean better health.

Every day I see patients who are dissatisfied with a system that slices and dices them into separate organs with over 65,000 distinct diagnostic labels. They know this is not getting them the sense of well-being they crave and deserve to be able to pursue the life of their dreams. While studying something by breaking it into its component parts works well for mechanical devices, it is not an effective approach for the elegant and mysterious whole of the human being. A whole person is not simply a bag of skin holding together various organs and chemical fluids. We live in environments: family, work, community. And our rich internal environment can often only be expressed artistically, or perhaps not at all, even to a trusted friend. We also have a timeline of environments: womb, childhood, parenthood, and beyond.

The Science of Integrative Medicine

Even before medical school, I took a path that was more about creating quality of life, than “merely” preserving the fact of life. While only the individual is competent to discern the quality of their own journey through this human space, more and more science now actually points us to various factors creating enjoyment, satisfaction and meaning in our lives. It also gives us clear guidelines about the care and maintenance of the physical body necessary to propel us toward these experiences. Decades of studying this whole person has led to the inescapable conclusion that integration is required to result in well-being. This is why I can now be board-certified in the science of Integrative Medicine. Not only do we integrate different patterns of diagnosis and styles of healing found throughout the world, we also integrate our treatment approach to the whole person. This includes how their health is only one aspect of a complex life lived in mingled environments.

The miracle of life is an awe-inspiring ballet of countless myriad forces that must be choreographed together to produce and maintain healing. Despite the preponderance of our health care system’s focus on chemistry and anatomy, there are also electromagnetic and as-yet unmeasurable other “energies” (such as qi and prana) that directly influence homeostasis, that is the innate healing balance of the body. Whether we get sick, and whether we are able to return the system to balance are determined by this intricate dance of mind, body, soul, and spirit together. Unfortunately, our current health care system wants the dancers to perform in separate buildings, without a connected sound system, and with separate choreographers for every dancer.

It Begins with Understanding the Patient

In an Integrative Medicine consultation, my first step is to get to know the person, as directed by one of the greatest physicians of all time, William Osler. He famously said: “It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” So, the first question I ask is: What is your passion, your heart’s desire?” I need to know what draws a person into their life in order to even gain an inkling of how to help them get the fitness and stamina to pursue it. Then I begin to assemble a timeline of health and other major events from conception onward that has led us to our current situation. Many people are surprised to learn that 20 or more years of previous illness/injury, medications, environmental conditions, or neglect thereof actually culminated in a “diagnosis out of the blue.” Epigenetic science has even shown us that what happened to your mother or father before you were conceived, even back as far as three generations can have direct bearing on your current health.

Seven Essential Functions

After gathering the patient’s history, the next steps are not to assign specific diagnostic labels or identify the narrow number of drugs or therapies to treat these limiting ideas. Much more relevant is to look at seven essential functions that all humans need to integrate for wellness. These are:

  • Assimilation: digestion, absorption, and microbiome
  • Defense and repair: immune system, and parasympathetic nervous system
  • Energy: production and direction of the fuel that drives bodily processes
  • Biotransformation and elimination: detoxification
  • Communication: hormones and neurotransmitters
  • Transport: blood circulation and lymphatic drainage
  • Structural integrity: musculoskeleton, cell membranes, mitochondrial membranes, etc.

Using this basic framework, we pull together all the diverse clues to root causes. The statement “I’m fine as long as I take my allergy shots/medication,” leads to an exploration of gut health, nutrient absorption, environmental toxins, immune dysfunction, and more—because these are the root causes of “allergies.” Rather than just using treatments aimed at suppressing the effects or symptoms of a problem, we are more reliably pointed to the true sources of illness. This then gives us multiple intervention points to signal homeostasis to bring us back into balance.

It is little acknowledged in medical training or by doctors themselves that healing only happens if we support these innate processes in the body. Anti-biotics, anti-hypertensives, anti-diabetes, anti-depressant medications only buy us a little time to allow the true forces of healing to work their magic. Any drug you must take for life indicates that something is seriously out of balance. And, supporting it back into balance has been shown repeatedly to eliminate that “necessary for life” medication. Even these “seven essential functions” leave out the mysterious yet vital mind-body-spirit activation. Research on ACEs (adverse childhood events) and the tremendous recent neuroscience advances have clearly shown us that the mind and emotions can have astounding impact on the physical body, both for ill and for healing. This is why I have partnered with somatic energy therapists and other integrative healers to give my patients every advantage in their journey to true well-being.