I recently received this unexpected and surprising email:
I wanted to point out an article that published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst that gets to the root of why we are not solving the nation’s current epidemics of chronic pain, obesity, opioids, suicide, and cardiovascular disease.
My co-authors included Dr. Eric Schoomaker, the former surgeon general of the Army; Dr. Tracy Gaudet, who leads cultural transformation at the Veterans Health Administration; and Dr. James Marzolf, the chief health and data analyst in Dr. Gaudet’s office.
In the article Finding the Cause of the Crises: Opioids, Pain, Suicide, Obesity, and Other “Epidemics”, we show how our nation’s response to our current epidemics are tackling the wrong problems.
For example, take the opioid epidemic. The response has been to restrict opioids and focus on other drugs. This narrow approach is compounding the problem. The root cause is that we don’t manage chronic pain appropriately. We need a major roll out of non-pharmacological approaches for pain.
Instead of treating pain with a pill, we need to pay attention to the whole person in mind, body, and spirit. When we do this, we may find that non-drug approaches to treating the person are more appropriate, and treat not only the pain, but the suffering that often accompanies it.
The article describes how systems like the Military and Veterans Health Administration are doing this with transformative approaches that embrace whole person, integrative health.
The good news is that the answers are out there. The entire nation can do this, and we can start now.
Dr. Wayne Jonas
In case you don’t know who my ‘friend’ Wayne is (I did mention him before here and here, for instance), here is a concise summary of his background. As you doubtlessly do know, the NEJM is a (perhaps even the most) respected medical journal. I therefore tried to find the article there and was amazed not to find it. Then I realised that Wayne said it was published not in the NEJM but in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst’, a very different proposition.
The New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst brings health care executives, clinical leaders, and clinicians together to share innovative ideas and practical applications for enhancing the value of health care delivery. From a network of top thought leaders, experts, and advisors, our digital publication, quarterly events, and qualified Insights Council provide real-life examples and actionable solutions to help organizations address urgent challenges affecting health care.
But what about the paper that Wayne so warmly recommends? It turns out to be little more than a promotional stunt for integrative medicine. Here is an excerpt from it:
It is often a surprise to people that two of the largest health care systems in the country are trying to radically redesign what they do to provide more whole-person and integrative care. These two systems are run by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and collectively care for over 20 million people. The nation can learn from their efforts.
The need for reform emerged after the turn of this century when leaders in the DoD and VHA began to hold informal meetings under the title “From Healthcare to Health.” Over the course of those meetings, the participants recognized the failure of their health care systems to get at the underlying causes of chronic disease. In 2009, they secured the support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to change overall military doctrine and guidance to a radically holistic approach called “Total Force Fitness,” which subsequently led to health and community innovations. An example of these redesign innovations was the Defense and Veterans’ Pain Management Task Force and Report and the resulting strategy that preceded the National Academy of Medicine’s report on pain in America.
Other innovations included the Healthy Base Initiative and the Performance Triad, the latter of which focuses on the importance of asking all patients about their sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. All services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Special Forces — continue to shift to whole-person models that seek to implement behavioral and complementary approaches. For example, >6000 providers have been trained in and routinely use Battlefield Acupuncture for pain.
The transformation currently underway in the VHA, which goes under the name “Whole Health,” is also an offshoot of that leadership dialogue from 20 years ago. In the Whole Health approach, the emphasis is to empower and equip people to take charge of their health and well-being. In this approach, trained peers help veterans explore their sense of mission and purpose, and well-being programs focus on skill-building and support for self-care. These elements, in addition to person-centered, holistic clinical care, create the Whole Health delivery system. VHA facilities are shifting from a system designed around points of clinical care (in which the primary focus is on disease management) to one that is based in a partnership across time (in which the primary focus is on whole health). Clinical encounters are essential but not sufficient. This health system is designed to focus not only on treatment, but also on self-empowerment, self-healing, and self-care.
This radical redesign is built on decades of VHA work enhancing its integrative approaches with innovations such as Patient-Aligned Care Teams, Primary Care Mental Health Integration, peer-to-peer support, group access to mental health services, and the increasing use of complementary medicine approaches. These changes laid the groundwork for the kind of radical redesign now underway in the VHA and that is needed in all national health care delivery systems.
In 2011, the VHA established an Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation to further redefine health care delivery and to oversee this unique approach. Whole Health has begun rapid deployment across the entire VHA system, starting with 18 VHA medical centers in 2018 and with a planned expansion to all VHA medical centers by the end of 2022. System-wide implementation will require an estimated $556 million over 5 years.
When fully implemented, operating costs for this shift are projected to represent 1% of the VHA annual budget. This implementation will involve hiring almost 6,400 new staff, the majority for positions that did not previously exist in the VHA, including health coaches and peer health partners, nutritionists, acupuncturists, and yoga instructors. Whole Health is building access through group visits, peer-to-peer support, and the development of Personal Health Plans for every veteran — something everyone in the country could use. In addition, new payment codes have been created, allowing providers to capture and cover their time and efforts using relative value units (RVUs) and to track productivity.
Will Whole Health help to cure what ails health care? Current models suggest that it will. With improvement in health outcomes, there will be a reduction in the need for existing clinical and biomedical services. These models predict increased access and more proactive population health management. With the addition of these new Whole Health services, we project a 24.5% increase in access when fully deployed — without the addition of a single hospital bed or medical specialist. In addition, Whole Health exceeds cost neutrality and is conservatively estimated to return $2.19 for every dollar invested over 6 years.
These returns reflect net cost avoidance and are derived from reductions in the need and demand for existing clinical health services — exactly what the nation needs in order to reduce chronic disease crises and contain costs. The per capita savings or cost avoidance is modest, averaging $535 per veteran annually over the 6-year period. Cumulatively, however, this totals over $6.2 billion in cost avoidance. Given that the Whole Health approach will improve the health of veterans, many of whom are dealing with complex issues such as chronic pain, mental health conditions, and opioid use at a cost of about $1 per day per veteran, it is a financially sound, cost-effective change from the current health care paradigm.
So, does this change my mind about integrative medicine?
I’m afraid not! And Wayne fails to provide the slightest evidence that his concepts amount to more than wishful thinking (note how he first mentions predictions of cost savings and, in the next paragraph, pretends they are a reality). I simply do not believe that adding a few unproven therapies to our routine healthcare and wrapping the mixture into politically correct platitudes will improve anything. This cannot work from a theoretical standpoint and, crucially, there is no empirical evidence that it does improve anything else but the income stream of charlatans.
If healthcare needs reform, then let’s reform it! Adding cow pie to apple pie is not a solution, it merely spoils what we have already. I am saying this now since 17 years when I published my first comment on integrative medicine. It was entitled Integrative medicine: not a carte blanche for untested nonsense. I do still think that it sums up the issue succinctly.