For a man who has been featured on national talk shows, written several books, and sports a beard as famous as ZZ Top, you may be surprised by how lowkey Dr. Andrew Weil behaves at home. He quietly tends to his garden and herds two Rhodesian ridgebacks in and out of his Tucson sanctuary. Behind this gentle demeanor is a trailblazer who molded integrative medicine for over 50 years.
Today, integrative medicine practitioners focus on healing a patient’s mind, body, and spirit. That includes therapies such as meditation to round out the approach to well-being. Andrew Weil, MD, has dedicated his career to pushing the profession to support this approach to medicine. His journey seems validated, since both allopathic and osteopathic medicine incorporate aspects of integrative medicine and patients are demanding a more holistic approach to healing and staying healthy.
Through The Eyes of a Non-Conformist
After high school, young Andrew Weil received a scholarship from the American Association for the United Nations to live with families in India, Thailand, and Greece. While abroad, he gained an appreciation for the healing practices used by other cultures. More importantly, he understood how disconnected American medicine and science in the United States were from anything outside our borders. Dr. Weil would go on to graduate from Harvard College with a degree in biology and stayed in Crimson to earn his medical degree in 1968. Dr. Weil completed an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and working for a year at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Disillusioned with the state of medicine, Dr. Weill decided to travel and write for a few years in the 1970s. Freelance work allowed him to earn a living and hone his communication skills. Travelling opened his mind to new ideas.
Dr. Weil says he wasn’t concerned about being accepted by his peers. He felt free to formulate his own concepts of a different approach to medicine. This maverick spawned a burgeoning movement that is now an internationally recognized medical specialty that offers fellowship training and a board certification exam.
The culmination of Dr. Weil’s hard work was the founding of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine (formerly Arizona Center of Integrative Medicine) in Tucson in 1994. The center is recognized for its educational programs, evidence-based clinical practices, and research in the field of integrative medicine which has helped influence public policy. It offers residency and fellowship programs, which have graduated more than 2,000 fellows and trained doctors hailing from 50 US states and 27 countries.
Looking For Something Different
Many Americans, Dr. Weil says, “Don’t know that they pay three to four times the amount for prescribed medication than people do in Europe for the very same drugs!” The healthcare system in the United States is “dysfunctional,” Dr. Weil states. “We have worse health outcomes than any other developed country in the world. The WHO ranks the US 38th, which is on par with Serbia!” Dr. Weil questions the bang for the buck. He says, “Any way you look at it, whether longevity or infant mortality. What’s wrong with that picture? We’re spending more and more, and we have less and less to show for it.”
Dr. Weil believes the healthcare system needs to promote health and prevention of disease. By that he means more emphasis on helping patients manage diseases better by intervening in a patient’s lifestyle earlier. He wants patients to be empowered to make better choices in how they eat, how they exercise, and how they handle stress. In his view, conventional medicine doesn’t move the needle on lifestyle-related issues.
Why Integrative Medicine?
Dr. Weil believes that patients come to integrative medicine because they’re tired of being overmedicated, overcharged for prescriptions, and never fully healed. He argues patients are prescribed pharmaceuticals that could be avoided if more time was given to understanding the patient. He questions the cost of prescriptions in the US and often doesn’t see the drugs as the value-added they are promised to deliver.
An integrative medicine patient can be someone with a complicated disease that conventional medicine has failed to heal. They could also be someone who wants preventive medical counseling and just wants to tweak their lifestyle to stay physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. Most importantly, these patients are motivated and are active participants in their health.
The integrative approach requires more time. A physician will spend at least an hour at the initial intake to take a deep dive into the patient’s history, current lifestyle, and goals. The medical team wants a more complete picture of the physical, mental, and emotional body. That means asking many questions. Integrative physicians may use therapies like hypnosis, visualization, and guided biofeedback.
Dr. Weil believes for-profit entities have, “completely sabotaged the doctor-patient relationship.” He sees integrative medicine as helping to re-establish a more therapeutic doctor-patient relationship that will foster healing for patients. He also sees greater satisfaction among physicians who take this approach, helping to bring some joy back to practicing medicine.
The rivalries between the allopathic, osteopathic, integrative, and naturopathic medicine are “only professional jealousy, and trying to exclude people rather than incorporating them,” states Dr. Weil.
Dr. Weil believes each of these different medical systems has strengths and weaknesses that can work in harmony to care for patients. Allopathic medicine has been good at dealing with issues like trauma, critical or severe illnesses, and bacterial infections, but often fails to address chronic diseases. “Osteopathic medicine began entirely on the manipulation of the body,” says Dr. Weil. “Osteopathic manipulative therapy is one of the great healing techniques.” After surviving early persecution by the allopathic profession, osteopathic has become nearly identical to allopathic medicine.
Integrative medicine, he argues, has carved a niche for psychiatric, mental, and emotional illnesses, and does well in navigating chronic diseases. Naturopathic medicine has its roots in healing traditions that involve hydrotherapy and natural cures. Naturopaths, Dr. Weil states, “many times are better trained in nutrition and botanical medicine.” That leads to a better understanding of lifestyle medicine. Unlike allopathic, osteopathic, and integrative medicine, they lack patient resources, and few private insurance carriers will cover the naturopathic treatments.
The Future Of Integrative Medicine
After 50 years in trailblazing a medical movement, Dr. Andrew Weil knows that there is still work to do. One day soon, he hopes, “we will shed the term integrative medicine, just calling it good medicine and fully incorporating it into the other forms of medicine.” The approach will become more mainstream, as more integrative fellows and board-certified physicians move into positions of influence and integrative medicine residency programs continue to flourish.
Dr. Weil sees our current healthcare system as heading off a cliff. A collapse, he believes, would force stakeholders to imagine how to create truly healthy outcomes and long-term effectiveness for patients. That could mean integrative and conventional treatments being seen as equals for patient care and investments to cut down on costs.
In Arizona, being an unorthodox or independent-minded person, a maverick, holds much significance. That’s who Andrew Weil, MD, is through and through. He bucked the medical zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s, launching a different approach to medical care and training followers through the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. This movement has become a respected specialty that many physicians and hospitals are incorporating, and patients are demanding.
About the Author:
Edward Araujo serves both as Managing Editor for Arizona Physician Magazine and Director of Marketing & Communications at the Maricopa County Medical Society (MCMS). He has over 20 years of digital marketing and non profit operational experience.