My Doctor Only Listened to Me for 10 Minutes
Integrative Medicine Helps You Get the Health Care that You Deserve
If you have ever had a complicated medical problem, or have been suffering with a condition for many years, or you have some mysterious symptoms, you have most likely been frustrated by the lack of attention from most health care providers. It seems that you just sat down and got started with your story, when your physician jumps up and reaches for the doorknob. Sometimes it can feel as if they are trying to get the answer to your problem as quickly as possible while typing furiously into their medical record. Often they never look up from their computers and shuttle you out of the door before you even got to the meat of the matter. Physicians frequently jump to prescribing a medication before they have even heard the problem.
Even though I am a physician myself and understand the way that our healthcare system works, I have felt the same lack of attention from providers for myself and well as my son. However, I know that it isn’t the physicians fault. Many doctors work for large groups that push them to see six patients an hour or more. They are often double booked. If they are on call, they must deal with emergencies and then return to a waiting room full of angry patients. They have piles of documentation to deal with, and often spend nights and weekends finishing their charting when they should be spending time with their families. Many physicians went into medicine because they truly care about people and want to help, but their hands are tied by their employers, insurers, and the healthcare system at large. Ten minutes is never enough time to assess something as complicated as a fellow human being, but that is all we get. Many physicians are left feeling incredibly burnt out and seek careers outside of clinical medicine because they feel so dehumanized by the system.
Patients with complicated health problems, that are often a result of trauma or complicated mind-body connections, cannot possibly have their issues addressed in the course of a ten minute visit. They will likely leave with yet another prescription and nothing that addresses the root cause of their disease. Physicians that operate in the typical healthcare system have no room or time to assess diet, life-style, or the emotional effects of illnesses.
After medical school, residency, and practicing medicine for 10 years, I felt the burnout that more than half of physicians eventually experience. I felt like I was working in a system that managed diseases, but didn’t help people. While working in the hospital, I felt like I was just patching people up or saving them from some distaster, only to send them away and have them come back a few months later. I felt like I could never address the underlying cause of illnesses, and I definitely felt that I did not have the time or the tools to address the emotions that were involved with complicated illnesses. It was dehumanizing to me to not be able to connect to my patients and to make a real difference in their lives. I needed a better way and so did my patients.
After enduring medical training, my mother’s suicide, an abusive hospital environment, and a divorce from an abusive, personality-disordered spouse, I was left incredibly disheartened and depressed. I knew that I needed help, and I knew that I needed to do something different, but the last thing that I wanted to do was see my primary care provider for 10 minutes and get a prescription for an anti-depressant. I became interested in what Integrative Medicine could offer, and I started the Fellowship at the University of Arizona. I think that I started it mostly to save myself, but I have discovered that I can save many others from a broken healthcare system.
I have learned so many things about actually caring for patients that I never learned in medical school. I learned to listen, and to actually hear what my patients were saying. I learned that in order to really understand the root of the matter, I had to listen for hours sometimes, and that a ten minute encounter just wouldn’t do. I studied about all kinds of ways that our minds control our physical symptoms, and can actually be used to heal our bodies and our lives. Many of these methods healed me and kept me off of anti-depressants. I learned how to have more compassion for myself and for my patients. I learned that prescription drugs can be helpful, but are often not the answer. My mind was opened up to the immense benefits of nutrition, a subject that is studied very little in medical school. I learned that one pill simply won’t do for most health conditions, because health requires an integrative approach with many different methods, supplements, nutrition, life-style interventions, and mind-body methods.
Integrative Medicine providers are trained to spend time with patients. We often operate outside of the insurance system because we refuse to spend only ten minutes with our patients. Most integrative medicine visits take up to two and half hours to address a given illness. We are trained to listen carefully to a patient’s life-story to understand how the illness came about and how different events or lifestyle events came into play. We also have extensive education on nutrition, and how it can be used to treat and prevent many illnesses. This was one of my favorite things to learn, because I never really could direct patients in the right direct with my traditional medical education. Now I feel confident that I can help most illnesses using something we all consume every day, food.
However, my favorite aspect of treating patients is exploring the mind-body connection. Almost every condition is intimately intertwined with our emotions. Hypertension can be treated with biofeedback. Autoimmune conditions can respond to meditation. Yoga can not only help musculoskeletal conditions but heart disease. Energy medicine is a mysterious and magical way to blend spirituality and medicine. The relentless loop of chronic pain can be interrupted with several mind-body interventions. I love to help patients explore how their emotions can be contributing because it can be a very strong tool to impact their quality of life. I never could use these tools as a traditional physician and I feel like they give me the ability to actually improve my patient’s lives in a meaningful way.
Whether I realized it or not, my patients have always been interested in herbs and supplements. Usually they would be too afraid to say anything to me, but if they did, they were often met with a blank stare. As a traditionally trained physician, I had no idea what these things did, how they interacted with their medications, or how to use them. After studying integrative medicine, I quickly fell in love with the power of plants. Unlike pharmaceuticals, they are mysterious in that they can heal in a way that we don’t yet understand. We have tried to isolate the medical components of many herbs that we know have an effect, yet we don’t succeed in achieving the full effect of the plant itself. It is believed that plants have many different constituents that work together in a synergistic fashion on our bodies. Most pharmaceutical drugs have on one action (and plenty of side effects). Maybe I was a witch in my previous life or I am channeling my farmer ancestors, but I have a new-found love of concocting magic potions that can work together to heal. I am now quite comfortable addressing my patients questions regarding herbs and supplements, and I love to use them along-side their other treatment modalities.
Integrative Medicine has taught me to love medicine again. It taught me to treat the whole patient and not just a particular organ or body system. I enjoy having relationships with people again, and I can now hit diseases and problems from every angle instead of just throwing a medication at them. Integrative medicine provides a truly synergistic way to alter human biology and disease states. I can pull resources from a much larger tool kit to actually prevent and treat disease in a much more meaningful way. I can take out the complicated healthcare system and actually distill medicine to what it is supposed to be about: the relationship between the physician and the patient.
Dr. Erin Fenstermacher is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Fellowship-Trained Integrative Medicine Physician with a practice in Albuquerque New Mexico as well as a Telemedicine practice available in other states.