Return of the Family Doctor
Personal healthcare has gone the way of house calls, as modern doctors’ offices
operate with assembly-line efficiency. Though parents will silently suffer the speed trials
of drive-through medicine for their own ailments, their attitude shifts from resignation to anger
when they see their sick children rushed through examinations. Holistic pediatrics brings
back old-fashioned family doctor philosophies, restoring friendly, in-depth pediatric care to
boost the entire family’s well-being.
Ask a parent what could be more important than their children’s health and the answer is swift: “Nothing.” Whether they go into panic mode over their baby’s single sniffle or are cool and calm even when their little one’s forehead feels likes a furnace, parents instinctively place the health of their kids above all else. While some are satisfied with the level of care that their children receive through HMOs, a growing number of parents are becoming frustrated with the standard pediatric approach.
Chief among these parental concerns are brief visits that involve little face-to-face time with the pediatrician and perfunctory drug prescriptions written without regard for other options.
Holistic pediatrics offers an alternative to this kind of brisk service, focusing on much more than just a quick fix for a specific ailment or issue. In fact, many holistic pediatricians often spend more than an hour with new patients and are intent on getting to the root of an illness regardless of the time spent. “Holistic pediatrics involves patience, time and gaining an understanding of the process of healing,” explains Dr. Lawrence Palevsky (www.holisticchildhealth.com), a leading holistic integrative pediatrician in the New York City area. In slowing down healthcare, holistic pediatrics restores the physician- family relationship to its proper place of importance.
Holistic pediatrics also restores parents to their true natural role as the primary care providers of their children: “Holistic pediatrics really is based on explaining to the parents that they have the ability to be more aware, accountable and responsible for the healthcare of their children.”
Part of this parental responsibility involves taking back control of their children’s health from the sometimes unyielding recommendations of conventional pediatricians. “The general consensus from the families I work with is that they feel bullied in a conventional medical practice,” says Palevsky.
“Their physicians are not open to exploring new ideas and questioning conventional medical thinking. Parents want to learn more and they want more time with their physician.” As a result of this approach, holistic pediatrics creates a family “wellness team” where parents become aware of how their own actions impact their children’s health and what steps may be taken to promote whole-family health.
Palevsky goes on to point out that some parents that might not have sought out holistic medicine in the past are now doing so, also, in part, because of the relatively recent abundance of online and in-print resources about children’s health: “These parents are hearing more information and are questioning more than parents were 20 or 40 years ago.”
In essence, standard pediatric practice has not progressed in a way that meets all of the needs of increasingly well-informed parents and their children. (Case in point: Antibiotics, which are still routinely doled out for many illnesses yet are often ineffective due to resistant bacteria and can lead to a weakened immune system and/or allergic reactions.) Although some doctors are willing to learn more about alternative healthcare, particularly well-known touchstones such as chiropractic medicine and essential oils, they largely adhere to a traditional medical perspective and are often reluctant to incorporate these therapies into their day-to-day practices.
While well-child examinations are standard pediatric fare, too often conventional medicine waits for disease or illness to occur and then employs over-the-counter and prescribed drugs to suppress or cure those symptoms. The holistic approach, on the other hand, extends beyond the physical to the emotional, environmental, mental and even spiritual well-being of a child. Holistic pediatricians investigate how symptoms initially arose and then prescribe overall lifestyle changes that will result in children being relieved of their ailments naturally, without harmful side effects. Despite the generally slow acceptance of holistic medicine with many longtime pediatricians, Palevsky optimistically notes that there are more and more “budding pediatricians who are really willing to upend conventional medical thinking and say, ‘I don’t want to work from a place of disease. I want to work from a place of wellness.’”
One of the key elements in the holistic approach to pediatrics is the use of medicine derived from natural substances, often minerals or plants. In many instances, the prescribed medicine—whether homeopathic, herbal or otherwise—isn’t necessarily designed to cure the illness. Rather, it works to kick-start the body into more effectively healing itself, a concept that is furthered in the philosophies of naturopathy and vitalism. Though self-healing is an appealing notion, holistic pediatricians make it known to parents that there are rarely any easy, surefire remedies—particularly since there are a myriad of specific factors involved in each child’s unique situation.
Although some parents bring in kids with what may be a one-time ailment, most of the children that Palevsky takes into his care are experiencing some form of chronic illness. Common ailments include neurological disorders, asthma, allergies, behavioral problems, sleep issues, ear infections and eczema. Palevsky has found that he can generally place his clients into three different categories. One group is families that have children with recurring ailments and are looking for a broader approach that goes beyond standard medical thinking. Another group is families that are looking to further their education, exploring every possible path to establish and maintain good health in their children. The third group consists of families that are often well-educated on many holistic therapies. “These parents are pretty independent,” Palevsky explains. “They use me as their doctor, but primarily as a back-up. They are the primary care providers for their children and they’re looking for a consultant.”
In the case of the first group, as with many people new to holistic medicine, there can be a considerable amount of skepticism when parents are faced with such a different perspective on their child’s healthcare. Since holistic pediatrics is most effective when the entire family participates, overcoming such doubt is an important part of overall treatment. Complicating matters further, Palevsky notes that spouses are rarely in agreement over the decision to pursue holistic health for their kids.
To overcome skepticism and ensure that the whole family is on the same holistic health page, Palevsky anticipates and addresses concerned parents’ questions with sensitivity—often providing answers in the form of positive outcomes he has experienced first-hand. “I offer them proof that where I’m coming from is not manufactured and it’s not from outer space—that it has validity and it has scientific backing,” Palevsky says. “My goal is to make them comfortable—and then just a little bit uncomfortable. I feel that’s where the parents are best situated to make changes—when they are just a little bit on the outside of their comfort zone.”
Holistic-minded pediatricians consistently see improper diet as contributing to children’s ailments. “I look at what comes in through the airway, what comes onto their skin, what comes into the nervous system field of the child,” Palevsky acknowledges. “But diet does seem to have the greatest impact, not only in the healing of the children, but how quickly they heal.”
In addition to the removal of toxins and addition of nutrients to the diet, holistic doctors also consider nourishment. In particular, they focus on food preparation, a notion that extends beyond nutrition into assessing the attitude of the person preparing the meals. Even the most well-meaning parents can serve their kids food that should be highly nutritious, but has been prepared in a way that saps many of the nutrients.
Here’s the bad news for busy parents who rely on convenience foods: the more processed a food is, the more diminished its nutritional content. Even innocent frozen and canned veggies are blanched prior to packaging—which can destroy fragile water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C and the B vitamins. Making matters worse, the ultimate fast family meal appliance—the microwave oven—zaps less-stable nutrients to oblivion. One study found that microwaving broccoli, for example, destroyed 97% of its disease-fighting flavonoids.
Holistic pediatrics suggests that slight changes in the kitchen—such as foregoing convenience foods for fresh, organic fruits and veggies and other whole foods; steaming, stir-frying, roasting, grilling or simply eating foods raw; and even cooking together as a family—can lead to significantly better health for the whole clan.
All in the Family
Intriguingly, many of the recommendations made by holistic doctors aren’t merely intended for the child—they extend to the whole family. “If parents are willing to, they’ll see that what I’m recommending for the child is just as beneficial for them,” Palevsky elaborates. “It’s not ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ it’s ‘Do as I do.’ Even though the recommendations are targeted to the child, a lot of the shifts must happen with parents as well.”
It is important to note that the holistic approach to pediatrics does not shun conventional medicine; it exists to complement the beneficial aspects of these standard practices. In his book Child Health Guide: Holistic Pediatrics for Parents (North Atlantic Books), Dr. Randall Neustaedter, a San Francisco-based colleague of Palevsky, writes, “If you have found a doctor who respects your desire to pursue the most natural and gentle forms of treatment possible, then communication can be open. You can utilize your pediatrician for information. Does my child have pneumonia? Are her eardrums red? Then you can decide what to do. ‘Thank you, we will take the prescription for antibiotics and use them if it becomes necessary, but we’d rather try a more natural approach first.’”
Obviously, health crises such as a broken bone or severe asthma attack will require immediate conventional care. Further, to overcome risks of neglecting symptoms, parents should always work with well-qualified natural medicine providers that are trained in diagnosis. But Neustaedter asserts that a watchful, waiting attitude with most symptoms can empower parents to pursue natural methods of care that do not involve side effects.
In addition to recovering from illness faster and avoiding the negatives of pharmaceutical drugs, children who are successfully treated with holistic methods often simply stay healthier. And, for parents, not only does holistic pediatrics enable them to gain a greater knowledge of their children, it allows the whole family to better connect as they gain and maintain an increased awareness of wellness. As Palevsky concludes, “What I’m most interested in is the education of the parent and then watching them take the information, go off into their lives and fly. Once they do that, they see the fruits of their labor.”