Full text of Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author, on Is Medicine Killing You at TEDxFargo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Is medicine killing you by Lissa Rankin, MD at TEDxFargo
Is modern medicine killing you, or saving you? The very idea that we should have to ask that kind of question is, is so upsetting to me as a doctor.
I was called to medicine the way many are called to the priesthood as a sort of spiritual calling. My whole goal is to help you heal, not to harm you. And yet, when you look at the causes of death, preventable medical error is the number three cause of death according to the Center for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine. And it’s not just medical error. It’s the whole nature of our pill popping medical culture that’s been adopted by patients and doctors alike.
Now, we know according to the Center for Disease Control that 90% of doctor’s visits are the result of stress. And yet, as a doctor, I wasn’t taught to help you deal with your stress. I was programmed to believe that it was my job to medicate you or to operate on you, so that you could go back to the status quo of your stressful life.
And yet, I started to rethink that in the research that I’ve been doing lately. And what I’ve come to realize is that as doctors, it is our job to help you address the fact that stress is one of the biggest killers among us, and that maybe instead of medicating you or operating you solely, maybe we need to help you address the issues that might be predisposing you to illness, or exacerbating your illness, like the toxic relationships from your life, or soul-sucking job that’s draining your life force, or financial worries, or social isolation and loneliness or a pessimistic worldview. All of these things have been scientifically proven to predispose you to illness. And yet, when was the last time your doctor suggested that?
Our health care system is so broken, because we are in the business of symptom relief, not symptom prevention. Dr Andrew Weil says, “We have a disease management system, not a health care system”. And we’re blind to this – we’re sort of turning a blind eye to this, I think, because we think chronic stress is just an inevitable part of life. It’s just how we have to live. And as doctors and patients, we are turning a blind eye to this, because it’s too hard to face. We don’t want to realize what it would take in order to alleviate our stress, to predispose us to longer healthier lives.
So we’ve made this collective agreement that I won’t talk about it, you won’t talk about it. You know stress is bad for your health. As a doctor, I know how many of my patients are showing up in my office because of the stress in their lives. And yet, we’ve sort of agreed not to talk about it.
But I’m here to illuminate that for us, because the idea that medicine could be killing us is just anathema to me; I can’t live with that. Because I have a dream of a healing health care system, one in which we bring the best of modern medicine, everything that we’ve learned about pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions and such and we marry it with what it means to be a true healer, what I was called to do as a doctor. Where not only am I putting a Band-Aid on the symptoms that are the result of your stress but I’m also putting a soul back in you.
This soul medicine I think is so much of what we’ve lost in modern medicine today. I dream of being able to replace that, of reclaiming the heart of medicine and of reminding you what it means to be a whole healthy human being. This is essential because our current health care system just isn’t working. We all know it, doctors and patients alike, yet it’s broken people. This is breaking my heart. Because when you look at the data, we spend more on health care than any other country in the world, and yet, 32 countries have longer life expectancies than we do.
Patient dissatisfaction is rising. 90% of hospital patients didn’t even know the name of their doctor at the time of discharge. It’s not just doctors. It’s not just patients that are dissatisfied. Doctors are just as dissatisfied. Nine out of 10 doctors would not recommend becoming a doctor. And 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug; 20% take five or more.
So I want to show you something here. These pill bottles have a month’s worth of medication in them, and I’m going to show you there’s approximately 500 of you here. I’m going to show you how much medication it takes to medicate all of you for just one day based on these statistics.
Now we’ve been trained in our system to think about medicine the way a doctor would think about a football player in football games. You know, the football player gets injured. So we bring the injured football player out of the game and we fix the ankle. And we set the bone or we inject the joint and we do everything we can to send the football player back out into the game. But what a lot of people aren’t talking about is perhaps the best thing for the football player is to get the football player out of the game, right?
And yet, it’s not just the doctors’ fault. What do we do when a star football player says, “Doc, just do anything. Do anything you can to get me back in the game. So we can win the Super Bowl”. That’s what many of you as patients are doing. You are asking us, as doctors, to fill you with pill so that you can go back to the game of your stressful life. And I am here because it’s breaking my heart that we’re having to do that, and I want to change the game. I want to suggest that maybe there’s a different way of doing this.
So I wrote a book called Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You can Heal Yourself. And it’s all about the scientific data that proves how stress affects our bodies. And this was really revolutionary to me as a doctor. I didn’t know — I didn’t know anything about this four or five years ago. And it was shocking to me to study the data. Because what I came to realize is that stress is not what we think stress is. You know, I think in this culture we have this concept that stress is like a badge of honor. I’m stressed, therefore, I’m busy and worthy and important. But to the body, stress is very different.
Stress is anything that triggers the amygdala in your brain to turn on what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response. So anything that turns on your fight or flight response puts you into the sympathetic nervous system and fills your body with cortisol and epinephrine and other very poisonous stress hormones. Now, this is good if you’re getting chased by a tiger, or if you’re about to be in a car accident because it helps to protect your life.
But your amygdala doesn’t know the difference between getting chased by a tiger and negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings that originate in your mind, that turn on those stress responses.
Now what I didn’t realize and this was my big aha is that the nervous system has two operating systems. There’s the fight or flight stress response — sympathetic nervous system. And there is the parasympathetic nervous system or what Herbert Benson at Harvard called the relaxation response. And this was my big epiphany.