Many experts have written about the problems healthcare faces. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has codified their approach to a solution in the Triple Aim, which seeks to curb cost and improve the patient care experience and health of populations. Healthcare futurists talk about solutions in the form of personalized medicine, nanotechnology, remote/virtual care, concierge care, and more.
But there is one problem that no healthcare pundit is talking about today, yet it lives at the very heart of healthcare. Solving this problem is the key to ushering in a cutting-edge scientific era of Enlightened Medicine that will bring joy and healing to the practice of medicine.
The core problem in healthcare
The core problem in healthcare is that the medical science we follow is remarkably incomplete. For decades, we've been taught that the human body is a machine, made up of little pieces called atoms. We believed this starting from grade school through college and medical or nursing school. Our teachers said, “When you put a bunch of atoms together, you get a molecule, then macromolecules, then eventually cells, organs, and finally a human being.” We were told this repeatedly in textbooks, lectures, and laboratories until it hardened as part of our scientific belief system.
The holes in this belief system were not discussed. Life, emotion, thought, desire, joy, purpose, and meaning were mostly ignored, but to the rare persistent questioner these were explained away as mere combinations of microscopic ball-like atoms bumping into each other. Was there science to back up that claim? Sure there was. But like all scientific conclusions, these interpretations were based on a fundamental philosophical assumption that we weren’t told about; namely, that the world is ultimately a physical thing and we are physical things.
How the core problem shows up
You can see the effect of a machine-like perspective of the human being in most clinical settings. Clinicians are often scrambling to see the number of patients scheduled in a day. While a car is a machine designed to be accelerated safely up to the speed limit and even beyond that, a clinician’s insights cannot be accelerated safely. Intuition and rapport are not made up of little parts.
Observe any clinical setting and there is good chance you will see clinicians and patients with pent-up emotions, unexpressed concerns, and a general sense of overwhelm, often under the blanket of a half-smile. This isn't normal. It results from an inner clash in the psyche between an old story telling us to push on like machines at any cost, and our own intuition knowing that there is more to the picture.
If you look in an anatomy textbook, a patient is depicted as a jigsaw puzzle. While this perspective has its value as a learning strategy, it rarely advances to a higher, more complete vision of the whole human being. As a result, diagnoses can be incomplete, and underlying problems that are not physical in nature fester until they cause problems at the physical level. This may be a reason why cancer, heart disease, auto-immune disease, and mental illness are rampant even as we experience a technological leap.
How are we coping with the core problem?
It is phenomenal that despite the pervasiveness of the core problem and the lack of attention given to it, we still manage to do many things well in healthcare. This is a testament to our creativity and intuition.
You and I know we’re not just robots. We’re not just a bunch of atoms thrown together. We’ve always known that, even before we studied our first textbook. We know that we feel, we think, we learn, we love, and we find meaning, even if these are not considered part of our anatomy. That innate creativity and intuition finds a way--at any cost--to work around misconceptions that function as roadblocks to health and care.
But our intuition shouldn’t have to be at odds with what we learned. We shouldn’t have to pick sides between a mechanistic model of what we are and an intuitive one. Both have their place, therefore they must be integrated. What if I told you that integration happened about 100 years ago?
Our modern scientific belief system dropped the ball
About 100 years ago, a pioneering cadre of Nobel prize-winning physicists discovered that the apparently physical atoms and particles that make up the human body were not physical at all on close inspection, but instead, mental in nature. Particles were first and foremost observations in a mind, not things. The results of their findings and of further experiments conducted over the last many decades were summarized n a 2005 article in the journal Nature by Richard Conn Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote:
...The 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the Universe’s nature. Bright physicists were again led to believe the unbelievable — this time, that the Universe is mental. According to Sir James Jeans: “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter...”
…In place of “underlying stuff” there have been serious attempts to preserve a material world — but they produce no new physics, and serve only to preserve an illusion…
...As Sir Arthur Eddington explained: “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character...”
In other words, experiments over the last 100 years have suggested that what we experience as the physical world—including our bodies as clinicians and patients—are actually mental. We are not primarily interfacing with things, we are interfacing with mental experiences. It is not wrong, per se, to say that we are made of atoms, but it is remarkably incomplete. We must recognize that the atomic framework is simply one way to map what we mentally experience. Science and intuition are complementary, not at odds.
If this sounds like a radical notion, recognize that it is only radical when juxtaposed against the belief system we have been fed for the last many decades. When we inquire into our own experience, it confirms what science discovered 100 years ago yet scientists have been hesitant to say: Anything we know is known only as a mental experience. This includes the mental experience of what we call a "physical" body.
Richard Conn Henry is surely not alone in his deductions. Numerous other scientists are with him. The evidence for a mental universe continues to build, but like any paradigm-shifting idea, the challenge of shifting minds and entrenched careers and institutions is not met overnight.
Enlightened Medicine will fully bloom when a critical mass of clinicians, patients, and administrators realize, through introspection and analysis, what science already knows—first and foremost, we are conscious beings. We interface and communicate with each other as and through the mind, not as robots in a concocted, physicalized world. When we fully realize this truth, we will unlock the depths of the mind and go beyond mere disease management to healing and cure for patients and clinicians.
Enlightened Medicine is unstoppable. An intelligent person who inquires into their own experience can’t help but see that everything we know is a mental experience, and even more, that the entire history of human knowledge, including science, is essentially a series of experiences occurring in consciousness. Consciousness is primary; matter is secondary. Those who fail to explore the possibility of the primacy of consciousness over matter through introspection and inquiry not only deny science, they deny their very own experience of life and contribute to unnecessary suffering in healthcare. Their contributions to healthcare are nearing their end. Current and future leaders of medicine: Wake up!
Enlightened Medicine is practical medicine. Patients, clinicians, and administrators who experience themselves and each other as conscious beings instead of machines marching to a clock, are, to put it simply, happier. Here are other characteristics of patients, clinicians, and administrators in the era of Enlightened Medicine.
- Their personalities are integrated and balanced, because their analytical and intuitive natures are aligned.
- They are more resilient.
- The decisions they make are more informed, because they are assessing not only analytical data but subtle, contextual information.
- They find creative solutions to intractable problems.
- They are more attuned to self-care in all aspects of life, creating health from the inside-out.
- They are self-aware.
- They learn from their actions without judging themselves.
- The love themselves and others.
A healthcare system built on these experiences will undoubtedly discover now-unthinkable technologies to promote, sustain, and return to wellbeing.
I am not describing utopia, though the above list certainly appears utopian in comparison to what happens today. In this coming era of Enlightened Medicine, there will still be sickness and bills to pay, yet the heart of healthcare will be transformed, permeating the entire system. Healthcare will naturally orient around and align with wellbeing at the highest levels. This is the highest goal.
How do we make Enlightened Medicine the new standard?
We are already on our way. Here’s what you can do to help.
- Share this post with like-minded friends and colleagues. Start a conversation.
- Begin a practice of regular introspection and/or meditation. (If you're not sure how to begin, start here.) The insights from this practice are necessary to integrate the incomplete information we were taught with our own intuition, without discarding useful knowledge.
- Spend some time online looking into organizations involved with mind-body medicine and integrative medicine. The next step in the evolution of these organizations is a shift in their scientific orientation from matter-based to consciousness-based.
- If you’d like to better understand the middle ground between consciousness and matter as it applies to wellbeing and healthcare, check out my book Michelangelo’s Medicine.
Enlightened Medicine will not emerge from large organizations as a shiny, new initiative. It will emerge from you and I connecting with ourselves and those around us.
- The Mental Universe, Nature magazine
- Making Sense of the mental universe--a philosophical perspective
Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership from McGill University. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.