Q&A: How has managing life and death situations influenced your views on healthcare?

Q: You are an emergency physician. How has managing life and death situations influenced your views on healthcare?

A: I thought for a long time about how I wanted to make a difference in healthcare. In the end, I found that I had to start by redefining the goal of healthcare. After seeing so many people come to the ER in severe distress, it became clear to me that simply getting better isn't good enough. It's just a start. Many people get better, then wind up in the same situation again. I felt that we should find a way to maximize the good times - maximize wellbeing. That may mean curing a disease, but it also means finding a way to be well in spite of what's happening. In other words, the goal isn't just to get better, it's to experience wellbeing. We have to aspire to that. And we have to declare that openly, throughout healthcare.

Q: But what does it mean to experience wellbeing in the context of healthcare?

A: We are moving toward wellbeing in healthcare already. All the popular movements we are seeing such as patient-centered care, narrative medicine, and integrative medicine are indications of that. We are taking the personal experience of healing and staying well more seriously, which is a start. But we don't have a bona fide map of wellbeing because we haven't yet mapped out the complete anatomy of the human being. We are still stuck in an outdated, incomplete model of the human being as a collection of atoms and cells.

Q: Why do you say the current model of anatomy is outdated?

A: When I was in anatomy lab, I used to wonder how much anatomy we could really learn from cadavers. Of course, many of the physical structures were still intact, but the body wasn't living. In my experience, there was a difference between living anatomy and dead anatomy. Dead anatomy could teach us about the body as a machine. But we need to also understand the subtlety of the human being, which is more present in the living body. Surely any patient and any person would want medical science to understand more about living anatomy, since they are interested in staying alive!

Q: What's the difference between living anatomy and dead anatomy?

A: Dead anatomy is about organs, cells, and atoms. Living anatomy is about the other experiences that accompany these physical structures. For example, we all experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They are as much a part of us as the bones of our skeleton. That's why we feel that a person who has lost their memory and sense of identity is no longer the same person. How do we account for that in terms of anatomy? Today, the explanation is that memory is in a neuron, feelings are hormones and neurotransmitters, and sensations are nothing but ions fluxing in the brain. That is a misattribution. All we know is that there is a strong correlation among these. Living anatomy suggests that we take our experiences at face value - feelings are a part of us, thoughts are a part of us, and so are our physical organs.

Q: Is your new framework for wellbeing based on living anatomy?

A: Yes. I call this new framework The Three Bodies. The Three Bodies honor and reflect the full experience of being human, not just the physical experience. And because this model is open-minded in reflecting the full breadth of human experience, it includes aspects that medical science is only on the brink of discovering, such as the energetic body.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area. He is the creator of the online course How to experience your Three Bodies: A meditative journey to wellbeing.