Skip to main content

U.S. manages disease, not health

By Andrew Weil, Special to CNN
updated 1:01 PM EDT, Sun March 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andrew Weil: Providing more Americans with health insurance is not enough
  • Weil: We have a disease-management system, not a health care system
  • He says our medical system is more about maximizing profits than fostering good health
  • Weil: Watch "Escape Fire" at 8 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, March 10, on CNN

Editor's note: Andrew Weil is the author of "You Can't Afford to Get Sick: Your Guide to Optimum Health and Health Care." Tune in to the documentary film, "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare," at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, March 10.

(CNN) -- The most insistent political question of the past four years has been: How can more Americans get access to medical care?

The federal response was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Better known as "Obamacare," it is a complex mix of insurance changes and tax credits. When the act takes effect on January 1, 2014, it will provide access to insurance to about 30 million people who currently don't have it.

Unfortunately, that was the wrong question. So the looming "answer" is wrong as well.

Andrew Weil
Andrew Weil

Here's the right question: How can we improve medical care so that it's worth extending it to more people? In other words, how can we create a health care system that helps people become and stay healthy?

I have argued for years that we do not have a health care system in America. We have a disease-management system -- one that depends on ruinously expensive drugs and surgeries that treat health conditions after they manifest rather than giving our citizens simple diet, lifestyle and therapeutic tools to keep them healthy.

CNN special report: "Escape Fire"

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The brutal fact is that we spend more on health care than any other country -- an estimated $9,348 per capita in 2013 -- and get shockingly little for our money.

The U.S. "currently ranks lowest on a variety of health measures," concludes a new report from an expert panel commissioned by the National Institutes of Health. Specifically, Americans have more obesity, more sexually transmitted diseases, shorter life expectancies and higher infant mortality than the inhabitants of nearly all of the 16 developed "peer" countries studied.

Why? A major culprit is a medical system based on maximizing profits rather than fostering good health.

Free health care plan can't meet demand

Let me be clear. I am not against all forms of high-tech medicine. Drugs and surgeries have a secure place in the treatment of serious health conditions. But modern American medicine treats almost every health condition as if it were an emergency.

Are bad health choices too easy to make?

This leads to vast wealth for the corporate medical complex but poor health outcomes and empty wallets for the patients. Making this system more accessible by passing costs to taxpayers will simply spread its failures more broadly.

The medical philosophy known as integrative medicine offers a better alternative.

As defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, IM combines mainstream medical therapies and complementary and alternative therapies "for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness."

It uses high-tech medicine sparingly to treat the most serious conditions while employing nutrition, exercise, stress-reduction and other simple, low-cost (or free) interventions to foster long-term health and resilience.

It's one thing to read about the horrors of the modern medical system.

It's quite another to see them vividly displayed in the faces and bodies of suffering Americans. I was honored to be interviewed for the documentary "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare," premiering at 8 and 11 p.m. ET Sunday, March 10, on CNN. The film offers an unflinching look at the causes and effects of our medical system's problems and provides some hopeful solutions. Highlights include:

-- The torturous journey of Sgt. Robert Yates, an injured veteran wounded in Afghanistan. He was prescribed a shopping bag full of prescription medications that left him broken and miserable in body, mind and spirit. Watching Yates begins to regain his health through gentle, low-cost therapies, including meditation and acupuncture, is profoundly moving.

-- A look at the revolutionary Safeway Healthy Measures Program. It gives the supermarket chain's employees financial incentives for taking responsibility for their own health, decreasing Safeway's insurance costs significantly while improving participants' well-being.

-- The dramatic story of Dr. Erin Martin, an Oregon primary care physician fed up with being pushed to treat patients faster and faster to boost clinic profits. She enrolled in the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine's Fellowship Program to find a better way, explaining that "I'm not interested in getting my productivity up -- I'm interested in helping patients."

The film takes its name from the practice of setting a small fire to clear out nearby brush, allowing a fast-advancing forest fire to pass by harmlessly. Will we be sufficiently clear-eyed and rational to take a similarly bold action to avoid disaster wrought by our dysfunctional health care system?

I hope so. In the film, I say, "The present system doesn't work, and it's going to take us down. We need a whole new kind of medicine."

I am grateful to filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke for making that case in this persuasive and eloquent documentary. Please tune in to CNN Sunday evening.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Weil.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT