Krista's Journal: Discovering the Globalization of Medicine

March 18, 2010

Mehmet Oz is one of the most respected and dynamic of a new generation of doctors who are taking medicine to new spiritual as well as technological frontiers. As director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia University, he has innovated tools and techniques, including the use of robotics, that are revolutionizing the field of cardiac surgery. He has also introduced meditation, prayer, reflexology, acupuncture, yoga, and massage into the operating theater and recovery room.

And yet even as integrative medical approaches have become a staple part of major hospitals and medical schools across the country, we have not developed a rich public vocabulary for describing this shift. "Alternative medicine," as it was once called, sounds like something off center, not broadly accepted or esteemed. The other widely used phrase, "traditional medicine," summons up visions of comforting old practices that we technological sophisticates have surely outgrown.

Mehmet Oz prefers to speak of "global medicine" and in doing so he puts these trends in spacious perspective. He suggests that integrative medicine is the realignment that global networks, communications, and travel have brought to medicine, just as they are realigning every other human endeavor from business to popular culture. He sees integrative medicine as a mutually enriching encounter of best practices from Western and Eastern cultures. In thinking this way, Oz does not belittle the radical advancements that Western medicine has made. He confesses his gratitude to earlier generations who innovated the life-saving surgical techniques he performs routinely. But he finds, to his own astonishment — and, one senses, delight — that other traditions and philosophies of healing often work precisely at the boundaries of our most advanced techniques. And he is not working merely to rid his patients of disease, but to help them be well.

I'm intrigued by the expansive definition of spirituality that I encounter when I speak with Mehmet Oz and other younger physicians. They refer to predictable practices such as prayer, meditation, reflection, and worship. But these doctors also consistently refer to their patients' relationships with others, their sense of connectedness to the world outside of themselves.

As medical practitioners they experience the presence of other people, and the support of community, to be sustaining to their patients' inner lives as well as their physical health. And the practice of integrative medicine, they insist, is not about inserting spirituality into the doctor-patient relationship where it is not appropriate and not wanted. It is more about acknowledging that the experiences of illness and healing have always involved more than what science alone can address.

Mehmet Oz is a rigorous clinician as well a wonderful storyteller. Most of all, he is an engaging human being, immersed in the practicalities of the world around him while remaining curious and adventurous about larger patterns of meaning. And perhaps that is the definition of "integrative" living that we are grappling towards in so many disciplines. We long to bring the spiritual aspect of life constructively into play with the rest of our experiences, disciplines, and accomplishments. This is happening, life by life, in creative and intellectually vigorous ways in the most unlikely places.

Recommended Reading

Image of Healing from the Heart: How Unconventional Wisdom Unleashes the Power of Modern Medicine
Author: Mehmet C. Oz
Publisher: Plume (1999)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages

Dr. Oz's accessible book for lay readers is Healing from the Heart. It describes his story and his philosophy of medical care. The book includes helpful appendices on specific "alternative" modes of treatment and a lengthy and helpful bibliography. The books and music page on our Web site includes a longer list of classic works — both old and new — in the field of integrative medicine.

Voices on the Radio

is a Professor of Surgery and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia University. He also directs the Complementary Medicine Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. His books include Healing from the Heart.

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