By Jerry Slater, M.D.
As modern medicine continues to evolve, the medical community is evolving with it, adjusting protocols and philosophies that embrace new findings and best practices. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to lifestyle medicine where a growing body of scientific evidence confirms the importance of whole person care in the successful treatment of cancer and other diseases.
As its words imply, lifestyle medicine and whole person care call for treating the whole person – physical, mental and spiritual — not just the disease. That begins with diagnosis and carries through the entire treatment process and lifestyle choices beyond hospitalization.
Patients who are confronting a potentially life-threatening disease are likely to experience levels of psychosocial distress both upon hearing the diagnosis and throughout the course of treatment. Even for those who handle the news relatively well, there are various degrees of anxiety, stress, and depression, all of which have been shown to impact the effectiveness of care. It is therefore crucial to offer patients and their families multi-faceted support throughout the treatment process.
To begin with, physicians, nurses, therapists and other clinicians need to place emphasis on the power of the words they use when working with a patient. By choosing how and what we say, we have the capacity to assuage their fear and replace it with a positive attitude that places an emphasis on how they will live a meaningful life. It’s also important to learn about our patients as individuals. When we take the time to understand how each individual deals in their own way with the stress of a life-threatening illness, we can encourage them to take advantage of specific coping strategies that are right for them.
Every aspect of healthy living needs to be put into place as part of each patient’s care plan. For example, repeated studies have confirmed how beneficial good nutrition and regular physical activity are to the healing process. In addition to providing recommendations for effective dietary programs that aid healing, treatment facilities can arrange memberships to local fitness centers for patients and their families as a way to encourage regular physical activity. Such activity benefits both the body and the mind during treatment.
Additionally, it’s important to provide patients with a chance to develop new emotional support systems with opportunities to share common experiences and feelings during treatment. This too assists in the healing process. Creating such support systems is particularly important for those patients who leave their homes and sometimes even travel far distances to be closer to the hospital during treatment and thus remove themselves from their existing support systems and comfort level. We have seen great results from programs such as pot luck dinners, local restaurant tours, educational seminars, and disease-specific support groups. Patients not only become better educated, but they also are given an opportunity to share common experiences and feelings, and develop a new supportive community to help during the healing process.
Likewise, since patients can undergo literally life-transforming experiences during treatment, a spiritual connection can be very beneficial. To help provide this, hospitals and other facilities can do their part by providing spiritual support on site, or else (or in addition to) a resource directory with a comprehensive listing of nearby religious institutions of all faiths.
Components of lifestyle medicine such as stress management, nutrition, exercise, social networking and spiritual support all play an integral part in the healing process and it is incumbent upon hospitals to provide patients the education and tools that they need to make sure that such programs continue after they leave the hospital. Not only does such an approach serve the patient well, but in this era of population health management, it is more important than ever to focus on the well-being of patients as a vital part of their community post-discharge. Hospitals and physicians can help do this by, for example, providing disease-specific survivorship programs for cancer patients based on principles of whole person care with the focus on helping to restore wellness and quality of life.
Our hospital was founded on Seventh-day Adventist principles. Accordingly, whole person care is part and parcel of what we do. The comprehensive approach that we take with treating the whole patient—physically, mentally and spiritually—has been an effective and critical part in patients’ long-term health outcomes. We encourage other hospitals and treatment centers to foster this same approach with their patients for similar long-term results.
Jerry Slater, M.D., is chairman of the James M. Slater, M.D., Proton Treatment and Research Center at Loma Linda University Cancer Center.