The Slow Medicine Incentive: Healthy People Have More Fun

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on September 18, 2014. 

About 15 years ago, when I was working 16-hour days as the medical director of a large hospital, my oldest son was having difficulty getting along with other kids. At the time, I was immersed in the “quick fix” world of modern medicine; so when my then-wife suggested we get our son evaluated by a psychiatrist friend, to find out what was “wrong,” I was familiar with the logic and acquiesced, even though I was troubled by the slippery slope that potentially lay ahead.

After our son’s evaluation, my friend came through by using his heart instead of his prescription pad — a great relief. Still, when he sat me down, he offered something I could never have expected coming from the world of conventional medicine: wisdom and insight that changed my life forever. “Your son doesn’t need me,” he said. “He needs his father.”

Pow. Right in the kisser. That was my wakeup call.

I embarked on a program to get my life in order, rearranging my schedule, taking better care of myself, and spending quality time with my son — resetting my priorities. Not only did I come to enjoy my life more, but true to my friend’s word, the restoration of my relationship with my son had a positive domino effect that organically resolved my son’s trouble at school. His “symptoms,” in other words, were effectively addressed not through site-specific treatment, such as mind-altering medication, but rather, through an indirect yet powerful measure: nourishment of his heart and soul.

This profound experience catalyzed a series of changes in my personal and professional lives — ultimately leading me to leave the world of quick fixes in the dust and whole-heartedly embrace Slow Medicine.

John Kennedy, M.D. — director of preventive cardiology and wellness at Marina Del Rey Hospital and author of The Heart Health Bible — came to a similar conclusion about quick fixes and Slow Medicine, through his own wakeup call as a medical student at Dartmouth. While on rounds with the doctor who was his mentor, Kennedy visited an emergency room patient who complained of chest pains. “She described her life as being very stressful,” Kennedy recalls. “I remember that being the predominant part of the conversation.”

After consulting with the chief resident about a diagnosis, Kennedy’s mentor returned to the woman’s bedside, telling her that she was fine and that she would go home. The diagnosis? Supratentorial — medical jargon for all in the patient’s head. “They minimized all of the stress that she was talking about in her life,” Kennedy says.

Two weeks later, the same patient was back in the emergency room, this time after having suffered from a heart attack. She was promptly admitted to the hospital.

Distressed that what could have been prevented was not, and profoundly impacted by this experience, Kennedy dedicated his cardiology career not only to treating patients with heart disease but also to researching and teaching stress management techniques that reduce or eliminate the threat of heart disease to begin with.

David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and author of Disease Proof – has similarly devoted his medical career to researching and teaching people about what he refers to as lifestyle medicine. “We have the knowledge to eliminate 80 percent of all chronic disease: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia,” he says. “You put that all together into a horrible bundle, and 80 percent of that doesn’t need to happen, if we simply turn what we currently know into what we routinely do.”

While the medical establishment may continue to treat us after the fact of illness; and while it may further encourage us to reach for the quick fix of pills and surgery, in response to that illness, we can educate ourselves on the complementary and alternative medicine alternatives and, where appropriate, adjust our lifestyles accordingly. “We can’t just keep waiting on the world to change,” Katz quips, invoking pop singer John Mayer.

In our day and age, however, with medical knowledge not only well-documented but also widespread, through a barrage of mass communication formats, most of us know the basics of what we “should” and “should not” do, so as to get and stay healthy: Don’t smoke, do eat vegetables, yada yada. Scores of us, however, do not heed this advice, because we want to do what we want to do, not what other people tell us to do. It’s human nature.

For this reason, I love Katz’s fundamental question, What is health for? He routinely asks his patients why they are coming to see him, and most reply some variation of wanting to be healthy and fix what is wrong. Katz always follows up by asking why and digging deeper “in the annoying way that kids do,” as he puts it: But why? But why? But why?

“When you finally get to the bedrock,” he says, “the final answer is, ‘Because my life would be better. Healthy people have more fun.’ I think that’s the piece that tends to fall out of the discussion. We tend to talk about health as if health were the prize. I don’t think health is the prize; I think health is a currency that you can spend on the prize. If you have your health, you can do more of the things you like to do. You can do them longer; you can do them more robustly; and your life is better.”

By transcending the “don’t do that; do this” formula and exploring why health is important to us as individuals, we add the missing ingredient — the secret sauce, if you will — to the recipe of good healthincentive.

In my case 15 years ago, I wanted to be a better father and raise a healthy son. This motivation empowered me to make a lifestyle change that ended up transforming my life for the better. In your case, you may want to live to see your grandchildren; you may want to camp in the wilderness; or you may want to run a marathon. Whatever your “secret sauce,” keep this little fact front and center in your mind:

Healthy people have more fun.

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