What’s the Harm?

by Ann Tomoko Rosen

“First Do No Harm”

This phrase – attributed to the Hippocratic Oath, the Greek medical text that medical practitioners around the world consider a rite of passage – is something I think about on a regular basis, as I navigate treatment plans and strategies for what I like to think of as “compassionate medicine”. But it’s a tricky phrase: with the introduction of so many toxic and invasive medical procedures, how do we determine what constitutes harm vs. healing? And, when in the pursuit of “compassionate medicine”, who decides?  I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s a question that warrants consideration by health practitioners and patients alike. And then there needs to be some dialogue, because we really need communication if we’re going to implement anything with compassion.

So where to begin?

My observations around conventional medicine and even conventional thinking have demonstrated that we’ve become so impatient for results that we’ll undergo just about anything to get relief fast. And “supply and demand health care” gives us plenty of options. There’s a pill for just about everything and there’s a surgical procedure for virtually everything else. With so many quick and easy options at our disposal, we’ve become addicted to instant gratification when it comes to easing what ails us. Dietary and lifestyle changes that can help us get to the root of our symptoms and really impact our health and longevity often require a little patience and will power, so it’s tempting to opt for the pill, or at least the cup of coffee, that will keep us moving forward. But perhaps it’s time to really evaluate where we’re headed when we continually take that route.

Current medical practices lean heavily toward the eradication of unpleasant symptoms and many people mistakenly correlate the elimination of those symptoms with a healing process taking place. In the majority of cases, I find the opposite to be true, but we may be too busy chasing symptoms to notice. The trend I’ve been seeing as I watch our culture opt for short cuts resembles a game of medical “whack-a-mole”. A symptom pops up, we have at it with a prescription and another symptom comes to the surface. People do not always make the connection between the disappearance of one symptom and the arrival of a new one, but from a Chinese medical paradigm, I often witness a disease process moving steadily along a continuum.

Steroids and painkillers, two of the most commonly prescribed forms of relief, are associated with harmful side effects and I have yet to confront anyone who has become “healthy” as a result of using either of them. A while I understand, that these treatments are sometimes necessary and occassionally even lifesaving, they’re also readily applied as a quick fix and in the absence of other measures aimed at restoring balance.  Unpleasant symptoms are generally the body’s way of getting our attention when there is an underlying imbalance. They can serve as opportunities to acknowledge and address those imbalances, which might otherwise advance into more serious illness. However, when we merely address the symptom without carefully examining its origins, we may be accomplices to perpetuating a disease process.  There’s an argument for “doing harm” here, because doing this is akin to removing the traffic light from a busy intersection. Sometimes, as inconvenient as it may be, it’s necessary to stop and look around before resuming your course.

As practitioners, it may not be our job to tell our clients how to live or what to eat (though we try to guide them with Chinese medical wisdom); respecting each individual’s path is important boundary on both sides of this practitioner-patient relationship. But I’d like to invite people on both sides of those relationships to engage in conversations about health and healing goals. People who come into our offices are often suffering and will obviously come seeking relief, but it’s part of a practitioner’s responsibility to help people understand that relief and healing are not always one and the same.

True health, the kind that we associate with well-being and longevity, is cultivated.  It relies on our ability to be mindful about what we eat and how much sleep we get. It takes sunshine and fresh air into account and it requires that we fully inhabit and nurture our bodies rather than whipping it into submission to get the job done.  When we can embrace health in this way, we can move forward towards wellness.

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