We need a new science of healing to address the growing crisis in healthcare.
Dr Robin Youngson is a senior medical specialist working in the NZ public health service. An internationally renowned leader, author and speaker, Robin has been an advisor to the NZ Government and the World Health Organization. He has campaigned internationally, for more than a decade, to bring greater humanity and compassion to healthcare, and is the cofounder of Hearts in Healthcare. Robin is a member of the Global Compassion Council of the international Charter for Compassion, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Compassionate Healthcare. In 2016, the NZ Medical Association give Robin their highest honour – the Chair’s Award – for outstanding contribution to the health of New Zealanders.
The neuroscience of healing
My client told a harrowing story. Many years ago he was critically injured in a road accident. Lying all alone, he was trapped under the wreckage with multiple spinal, limb and head injuries. He believed he was going to die. Fourteen years later he is still trapped in the past, with daily flashbacks, paralysing stress and blinding headaches.
The entire therapy session took only thirty-five minutes, including the time taken to meet my client and hear his story. At the end of the session, the traumatic memory of the accident was erased, and he was unable to register any distress when asked to recall that day. All he could remember was the rescue.
While his relief from trauma is remarkable, the revelation for me was learning the neuroscience of the Havening Touch ® therapy that I used. Although some of the details are speculative, it’s established that this form of psycho-sensory therapy works via specialised nerve receptors that transduce soothing touch on the skin of the upper arms, face and hands. These signals stimulate high levels of low-frequency brain waves (Delta waves), which can reverse the process of traumatic encoding in the amygdala. The neural connections that encode the trauma are permanently and swiftly erased . When the client is asked to recall the event, the memory now seems distant and devoid of emotional content.
The power of this process is startling for both client and therapist and it leads to a giddy sense of relief and sometimes laughter. Many clients with life-long phobias have been cured in a single session of therapy. Those with a complex history of trauma require an iterative process of uncovering and treating different traumas and building emotional resilience. In this process, chronic physical health problems are often resolved and healed.
It’s not my intention to promote Havening Touch above any other form of therapy and it’s the general principle I want to explore. Learning about the mechanisms of action produced a seismic shift in my worldview about the nature of medicine and how patients recover from illness, regardless of the medicine or therapy used.
In the thirty-eight years I have studied medicine, I have from time to time been astounded by incidences of inexplicable patient healing. I saw a patient severely disabled with a painful frozen shoulder, who had barely moved his arm for four months. After ten minutes of therapy from a renowned Qigong healer, the patient recovered a full range of completely pain-free arm movement. My astonishment was matched by that of the patient, who was himself a doctor. I have also met a number of patient who have survived for years, or even decades, after doctors had diagnosed terminal cancer, for which there was no treatment and no hope.
In our Hearts in Healthcare work with health professionals in many countries, exploring the meaning of compassionate caring, I have heard hundreds of deeply moving and inspiring stories of healing. These experiences gave me a deep, intuitive understanding of healing and how a brief encounter can completely change the trajectory of an illness.
As a doctor and scientist, I simply didn’t know what to do with these inexplicable happenings, some of which verged on miracles. I couldn’t integrate them into my system of medical knowledge. However, learning the neuroscience of one mechanism of rapid healing gave me a scientific understanding of how many other forms of medical treatment might work. The revelation for me was that humans possess a rapid, powerful and inbuilt mechanism for healing both psychological trauma and the resultant disease (dis-ease), chronic pain or physical illness.
Suddenly, the miracles of healing I had witnessed before were no longer miracles. I realised that healing is ordinary. Every person has this capability. But Western medical science has been blind to this possibility. The problem is our basic science, which has reduced our patients to mindless machines. Machines don’t heal themselves but humans do. This formulation of medical science has led healthcare into a deep crisis.
The burden of lifestyle disease means our health is getting worse, not better
Despite our remarkable advances in medical technology we are not getting healthier, as individuals or as a society. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, less than 1 in 20 people worldwide had no health problems, with a third of the world (2.3 billion people) experiencing more than five ailments . The number of people with several illnesses increased both with age and in absolute terms between 1990 and 2013.
In my hospital clinic, I assess patients who are coming for anaesthesia and surgery. Only a small minority of patients do not already have multiple medical diagnoses and a list of prescription medications.
The focus on disease rather than healing, plus the explosion of expensive new technology, has caused an exponential increase in healthcare costs. Our hospitals are in crisis, trying to respond to ever-increasing numbers of sick patients. Health professionals are overworked, stressed and burning out in alarming numbers.
With this new perspective on the failings of modern medicine and the untapped potential for healing, I now find it extraordinary and perverse that almost all of medical research, medical training and even my own medical practice has been based on a mindless version of science. What exactly do I mean by that?
While most doctors care very much about their patients, their medical practice is actually based on science that specifically excludes the consciousness of their patients, that treats patients as mindless machines. As a consequence, doctors can’t care for the whole conscious person nor do they learn how to help patients heal. They can only respond to a diagnosis with a standardised therapy. For example, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, infections, heartburn, depression, and menstrual problems are usually treated with a drug without exploring how and why these disorders arise in the context of the patient’s life.
This limited version of medical science is ill-suited to the management of chronic disease. We now know for a fact that patients’ beliefs about illness , the meaning they attach to treatment , and how much they trust their doctor , profoundly affect treatment outcomes. We also know that a major cause of unhealthy lifestyles, addictions, depression, chronic illness and even cancer, is early life experience and emotional trauma . However, a mindless science ignores these factors and leads doctors to treat symptoms rather than causes, and to miss the opportunity for healing.
Patients’ beliefs radically affect their likelihood of getting sick and how well they recover from illness and injury. This effect is so powerful that it seriously complicates medical research. Researchers don’t know if patients get better because of the medicine being tested, or because the patient believes in the treatment and the doctor.
How do medical researchers solve this problem? They came up with an ingenious solution: double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trials. In this form of medical research, dummy pills are compared with identical pills containing the medicine being tested. It’s called double-blind because neither the doctor nor the patient knows what treatment is being given. This research method removes any influence of the patient’s mind and measures only the physicochemical effect of the therapy.
This mindless science has become the only acceptable way for a medical treatment to be ‘scientifically proven’. Based on this evidence, experts formulate clinical guidelines that tell doctors how they should treat different conditions.
This mindless version of science is the basis of almost all medical training, it determines what does and what doesn’t get published in the medical journals, and informs the treatment guidelines developed by expert panels. Doctors are so indoctrinated in this form of science, they sincerely believe that alternative treatments ‘have no evidence’ and ‘they don’t work’. I held similar views for most of my career. But what if complementary and alternative forms of treatment work precisely because they influence the mind of the patient and elicit a natural healing response?
I’m not being critical of my fellow doctors. Like me, they were trained in hospitals where mindless medicine works extremely well. In an emergency, when the patient is seriously ill or injured, during anaesthesia and surgery, in intensive care, doctors can largely ignore the effects of belief and rush to give life-saving treatment. Modern medicine saves countless lives. Because all doctors train in hospitals – even those destined to become family doctors – this experience creates the foundation of doctors’ lifelong beliefs.
But even in acute hospital settings, research shows that the conscious experience of the patient greatly influences outcomes. As an anesthesiologist, if I am empathetic, kind and supportive to the patient before she goes to the operating room, she will have much less pain and anxiety, will need only half the dose of painkillers, the surgical wound will heal faster, and the patient’s stay in hospital will be shorter  .
Acute medicine doesn’t work in primary care
The mistake made by doctors is to assume that this mindless medicine is also effective in the treatment and prevention of mental illness, lifestyle disorders, chronic disease, and cancer. However, these conditions are the ones most powerfully affected by the consciousness and beliefs of the patient.
We know for a fact that thoughts and feelings affect gene expression    . The patient’s habitual thinking style, attitudes and beliefs powerfully influence the course of disease – for better or worse.
These effects are potentially as powerful as many of the drugs that doctors prescribe. It’s extensively documented that some patients have cured themselves of terminal cancer. Coronary artery disease can be reversed without drugs or surgery . A positive mental attitude is just as effective at preventing influenza in healthy adults as the ‘flu vaccination  . Research also shows that a doctor’s kindness, caring and compassion have a major impact on patient outcomes .
In the management of chronic disease, treating patients as if they are mindless machines is a catastrophe. We are treating symptoms rather than fundamental causes. Almost every patient ends up on multiple medications, sometimes causing more problems than they help. This love affair with prescription medications is costly. Almost 1.3 million people attended U.S. emergency rooms due to adverse drug effects in 2014 and an estimated $200 billion a year is spent on unnecessary or harmful drug treatment. In elderly patients, more than 20% of emergency hospital admissions are caused by adverse drug effects .
The century-old history of medical training
Why are doctors so completely immersed in this mindless version of science? The fact is, major corporations took control of medical research and medical training more than a century ago and pharmaceutical corporations continue that domination of medical science. After all, it’s not in the pharmaceutical industy’s interest for people to know that 80% of chronic disease and 40% of cancer can be prevented or cured without resorting to expensive drug treatment (according to the WHO).
The 1910 Flexner report into medical education in the USA and Canada was sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation . Objective biomedicine became the gold-standard for medical education. The many medical schools that taught natural medicine and homeopathy were closed down. Carnegie and Rockefeller, the two richest industrialists of their age, gave huge research grants to support medical schools that supported the new curriculum. Patented medicines became the mainstay of medical treatment. Pharmaceutical companies have a powerful and corrupting interest in medical training, medical journals, medical text books, key opinion leaders, and ultimately government health policy    [ 21] [ 22] .
In mindless medicine, it makes sense to focus on efficiency, productivity and throughput. Our clinics and hospitals have been industrialised – designed to maximise procedures, prescriptions and profits. When the typical family doctor works in a system that only offers ten-minute appointments, mindless medicine is reinforced. The end result is not a healthcare system, it’s a highly expensive, medicated-sickness system.
The general public knows that many complementary and alternative therapies do in fact work. The reason they work is that practitioners treat the whole person. The therapies are infused with meaning and they elicit the patient’s natural healing response. But tested by the standards of mindless medicine, they are dismissed as useless treatments with no scientific validity.
The medical system is not supportive of alternative viewpoints and there are powerful interests vested in maintaining the biomedical model. As a doctor treating physical illness, if I talk about ‘healing’ my patients or if I practice any form of therapy based on conscious science – as opposed to mindless science – I risk being called a quack and being persecuted for ‘unprofessional’ practice. Medical journals routinely reject papers that do not conform to mindless biomedicine.
Technology is not the only solution to the healthcare crisis
Rapid advances in the technology for sequencing the human genome have excited the imagination of biomedical scientists. The much-hyped ‘Personalised Medicine’ revolution is defined by the National Cancer Institute as, ‘A form of medicine that uses information about a person’s genes, proteins, and environment to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease.” But to me it seems ironic that Personalised Medicine treats everything except the actual person, reducing the characterisation of patients to a series of numbers on lab tests.
Instead of rushing to sequence every patients’ genome – a throwback to genetic determinism – we should be studying how life experiences and beliefs change gene expression. For instance, the most famous of cancer genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2 – which today carry an 80% lifetime chance of breast or ovarian cancer, are highly variable in expression. In the 1920’s the exact same genetic mutation carried only a 20% lifetime risk of cancer . Why? We don’t know the answer because there’s no profit in studying how people stay well but there’s a potential fortune in selling genetic screening tests to everyone.
Another excitement in medical science is the discovery that stimulation of the vagus nerve can have a major influence on inflammatory processes and gut-brain chemistry, helping conditions as diverse as rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy and depression . Technology companies have rushed to invest in the development of implantable vagus nerve stimulators but the cost of the implant and surgery is up to $30,000 . However, the vagus nerve is one of the major pathways in natural healing responses and similar results can be achieved by teaching the patient yoga or mindfulness meditation .
Thus, we have a choice: investing in expensive new technology or funding research in the science of healing. I believe the next great revolution in healthcare will not be amazing new technology but a revolution in medical science. It will be a science of caring for people, not just treating disease. It will be the science of health, wellbeing, resilience and healing.
This science will ask why some people can smoke cigarettes all their life and not get ill. It will study why some patients can cure themselves of cancer or chronic disease. It will research why many people don’t get arthritis, or depression or hypertension. And it will deeply inform the development of a healing relationship between a doctor and a patient. It will acknowledge that the natural human capacity is to remain disease-free and vigorous into advanced age with minimal medical treatment, if only we lead healthy lives.
The American Heart Association just reported a study showing that the average life span of men and women can be increased twelve and fourteen years, respectively, with the adoption of five simple habits: not smoking, eating a healthier diet, exercising regularly, keeping a healthy bodyweight, and moderate alcohol consumption .
Who maintains healthy lifestyle habits? People who are happy and contented. Who does not? The unhappy, the depressed, the anxious and the stressed. Healthy bodies begin with healthy minds. But social isolation, loneliness, and mental health issues dramatically increase mortality rates and shorten the lifespan .
In short, we need a new science of healing to complement our science of sickness and disease. A science of healing that is rigorous, carefully researched, evidence-based, peer-reviewed and which starts with the assumption that each person is a conscious being, not a mindless machine.
The pioneers in healing science are offering us a tantalising glimpse of future possibilities: That a brief family intervention for children at age eleven can reduce inflammatory markers and halve the average alcohol consumption at age nineteen . That emotional trauma, hard-wired into the nervous system, can rapidly and permanently be erased by eliciting innate healing mechanisms . That programs in mind-body medicine can improve clinical outcomes and change the expression of more than a thousand genes concerned with cell reproduction, immune function and stress response . That subjects enrolling in volunteer programs have a 40% less chance of developing hypertension  and can reverse age-related declines in cognitive and memory function .
We need new institutions
To succeed in this venture of developing a whole new science of healing we need independent new institutions, which are funded to develop this science for the benefit of humanity, not in the pursuit of profit. These institutions need to embody health and wellbeing in every aspect of their physical design and organisational culture.
These institutions will not patent their discoveries, they will freely share all advances in science and technology. They will collaborate, not compete. And these institutions will develop schools of healing science to train new generations of health professionals.
It’s a mistake to conceive of health as an individual phenomenon. This individualistic science is a characteristic of Western thinking, which is not conceived in many other cultures. For instance, among the Maori people of New Zealand, emotional wellbeing and health is a concept that arises within the family grouping (‘whanau’), not individuals. This viewpoint is supported by the science of social network analysis, which shows that health conditions such as obesity and depression are highly contagious, they occur in clusters governed by social relationships   .
The largest, longitudinal study of health determinants and outcomes – the famous Harvard Study – has been running for nearly eighty years. The Harvard researchers report that the single most powerful determinant of a long and happy life is not the genes we inherit, nor the level of our cholesterol, but the quality of our social relationships. It is impossible to separate individual health and wellbeing from the health of our communities.
However, we live in a time when the greatest worldwide health burden is depression, arising in a society where individualism, materialism, greed, inequality and violence are poisoning our communities. It’s an urgent matter to research how we heal unhappy and divided communities and develop a science of collective flourishing.
The final Western delusion is that man is separate from nature, that we can endlessly exploit and damage our natural environment, in the pursuit of economic growth, without profoundly compromising our human health. Study of ecology has much to teach us about human health and wellbeing, as evidenced by the explosion of knowledge about the human microbiome. Just as humans have mechanisms for healing, so do natural ecosystems. An integrated science may lead us to many new important insights.
Furthermore, we cannot hope to address issues such as climate change without this shift in consciousness. The same mindset that creates a reductionist, mindless form of medicine also allows us to believe that we are separate from nature.
An integrated science recognises that human healing depends on the healing of our ecosystems and our communities. The wisdom-holders in this deep science of the interconnections between human health, ecological health, and the health of communities are the indigenous peoples of the world. Indeed, one native healthcare system in Alaska – Southcentral Foundation Nuka System of Care – is deemed to be the leading example of healthcare redesign in the USA, and perhaps the world.
Who gave this opinion? Dr Don Berwick, Former Administrator for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and President Emeritus of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). At Southcentral, the holistic approach to community healthcare reduced ER visits by 40% and hospital admissions by 37% between the years 2000 and 2017, achieving at the same time exemplary results in patient outcomes, patient satisfaction, and employee satisfaction.
Our new Institutes of Healing Science will flourish when they build deep collaboration between the pioneers in human healing, ecological healing and community healing, and the holders of traditional wisdom. To this we must add an economics that supports health, rather than endless consumption and environmental destruction. A wonderful, holistic framework is captured in the idea of Doughnut Economics put forward by Oxford economist, Kate Raworth.
It’s time for the revolution. Everybody knows that the current system of healthcare is unsustainable, and in great peril. We need to act urgently to save our hospitals for the important care of the acutely ill and injured. They are already in crisis, overwhelmed with the burden of treating the chronically sick.
The only answer is to urgently invest in a new science of healing, to complement the advances in biomedicine. We need to expand the model of medical training, and to turn our healthcare system into a health system rather than a sickness system.
How do we start? I can think of no better way than an international gathering of the leading scientists and traditional wisdom holders in an interdisciplinary exploration of the science of healing. Out of this gathering will arise the shared commitment to create the new Institutes of Healing Science, embodying a new set of values and ways of working together.
Now I need your help. I’m reaching out across my international networks to identify all the most important pioneers in healing science – in human healing, ecological healing and restoration, and community healing. Please share with me your knowledge and ideas. Name the pioneers. You can post comments below or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s make this happen.
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