Philly-born and Harvard-trained, Andrew Weil drew repeated applause Wednesday afternoon when he launched the American Academy of Family Physician's 2012 convention by telling fellow doctors that they could help Americans most by starting a grass-roots effort to ban sugary drinks, pharmaceutical advertising and break up the medical industrial complex.
"We don't have a health-care system, we have a disease management system," Weil told the group, which is meeting at the Philadelphia Convention Center through Saturday.
Weil, 70, has become well-known in the health-care community for his advocacy of integrated medicine, meaning a mix of conventional medicine, natural remedies, yoga and novel concepts like regular exercise and healthy eating.
As noted in an Inquirer story on Oct. 8, Weil grew up in West Oak Lane and attended Central High School before getting a bachelor's degree and a medical degree from Harvard. He is now professor of public health and clinical medicine at the University of Arizona and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Besides the family physicians, Weil is scheduled to speak Sunday at Forever Young, an all-day health and wellness fair at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown. A link to that Inquirer story by Art Carey is here.
With America in the midst of an obesity epidemic that will lead to a cardiovascular disease epidemic, Weil complained that medical schools ignore low-tech teaching techniques such as nutrition and listening to patients and promote high-tech techniques involving devices and drugs, along with specialties within specialties.
"The glut of specialists we have is one of the great obstacles to effective health care in our country," Weil said, prompting another round of applause from the audience of family doctors.
Weil lamented that one in 10 persons is using some kind of pharmaceutical product, partially a result of drug advertising. New Zealand is the only other country that allows drug advertising directly to consumers, which Weil said was a "disaster," for the practice of medicine.
"That is something that should be ended immediately," he said, "and I hope you will work to change that."
Weil applauded attempts by several big city mayors to restrict sugar-laden beverages, but fretted that too few people realize that fruit juices have about the same level of sugar as soda, without the benefits of whole fruit. Sugar drinks and their advertising are part of a "big, knotted mess," when it comes to food in our country.
Beside soda, Weil urged family doctors to tell politicians to stop subsidizing corn and soybeans, which keep prices artificially low and encourage production of carbohydrate products relatively low in food value.
"People eat what is cheap and available," Weil said. "There are no subsidies for fruits and vegetables, which are out of reach for many people in our culture."
Almost everyone laments the rising cost of health care, but the unanimity ends there. Drug and device companies, insurers, for-profit hospitals and, yes, some doctors, want more profit. Patients resist paying for health care, either through taxes or payroll deductions or out of pocket.....assuming they have any money at all.
Weil told the crowd that he was worried about the prospects for change in America.
"There is no possibility of seeing any change come from government or elected officials," Weil said. "As dysfunctional as our health care system is, it is generating rivers of money and that money is flowing to very few pockets. It is flowing to the big pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of medical devices and big insurers. They want nothing to change.
"They have total control of our legislators and our elected officials. It doesn't matter whether they are Democrats or Republicans. The only way this will change is through a grass-roots movement, in which enough people become aware enough and angry enough about the present situation to change the politics of the country and elect different kinds of representatives. It is my hope that enlightened physicians could be the starting point for this grass-roots movements. And you in family medicine are in the best position to do that."
And just to reinforce the challenge, many of the convention sponsors are drug companies. Coca-Cola is sponsoring two panel discussions. The one scheduled for Thursday morning is entitled, "Sugar Substitutes in Weight Control: Where They Fit Between Philosophy and Sound Science."
A link to the American Academy of Family Physicians is here.
A link to Weil's web site is here.
A link to the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona is here.
A link to the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia is here.
A link to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine with the National Institutes of Health is here.