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Q and A with Russell Greenfield

by Mark Peres

April 8,2009

Russell H. Greenfield, M.D., is president of Greenfield Integrative Healthcare, an integrative healthcare consultancy. He is a consultant and spokesperson for the Harris Teeter ‘yourwellness’ initiative launched in March of 2006. Dr. Greenfield received his medical degree from The Chicago Medical School where he was a junior year Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society inductee. He completed residency and fellowship training in emergency medicine at Harbor / UCLA Medical Center. He then moved to Charlotte and became involved in the emergency medicine residency program at Carolinas Medical Center, where he was honored as the inaugural recipient of The Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching. Dr. Greenfield was medical director of the emergency department at Presbyterian Hospital Matthews in Matthews, NC prior to becoming one of the first four physicians worldwide to be admitted into the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at The University of Arizona College of Medicine under the tutelage of Dr. Andrew Weil. He is co-author of Healthy Child, Whole Child (HarperCollins 2009).

You are a public personality, author, lecturer, advocate and consultant for integrative medicine. What is integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine is a whole-person approach to healthcare. In effect, integrative medicine treats the person, not the disease. IM, as it's often called, depends on a partnership between the patient and the doctor, where the goal is to treat the mind, body, and spirit, all at the same time. While some of the therapies used may be nonconventional, a guiding principle within integrative medicine is to use therapies that have high-quality evidence to support them. IM combines conventional Western medicine with alternative or complementary treatments, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, yoga, and stress reduction techniques – all in the effort to treat the whole person. Proponents prefer the term "complementary" to emphasize that such treatments are used with mainstream medicine, not as replacements or alternatives. 

How did your interest in integrative medicine develop?

From my earliest days in medical school I had an interest in Chinese medicine. I found it so poetic, a beautiful way to treat people, and it spoke to the part of me that loves the arts and humanities. I found Chinese medicine an optimistic approach to health and healing, seeking to balance our “life force” so we can be well and stay well as we age gracefully. However, in my career I was a dyed in the wool conventional medical practitioner. I was in emergency medicine, and emergency medicine is a microcosm of all of healthcare. It puts a Band-aid over gaping wounds: our physical maladies are addressed, but our emotional and spiritual wounds go unaddressed. In emergency medicine, I saw that everyone was in some way unhappy with our system of healthcare: the doctors, the nurses, the administrators and the patients. I was yearning for another way. 

One day in 1996 I was in an airport away from home, and I saw an issue of Life Magazine with a cover photograph of Dr. Andrew Weil covered in mud. I had never bought Life Magazine before, but for some reason I did, stuck it in my bag, and pulled out the magazine at home. I read about a new Fellowship about optimizing health and well being. I literally caught my breath. I had a great job, two kids in diapers, but I felt called to apply. Eighty physicians interviewed, and I was selected as one of four finalists. So I quit my job as director of the emergency department at Presbyterian Hospital Matthews, sold my house in Charlotte, and began the Fellowship studying with Dr. Weil at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

I studied for two years. I was astonished to find out how much research there was on complementary medicine. I approached it very skeptically, wanting to explore the data. I learned the difference between there not being any evidence and my not being aware of the existing evidence. The program emphasized how each of us has unique gifts of healing potential. Whereas curing takes place on a physical level, healing includes our emotional and spiritual selves, and happens in community. We explored how to live the healthiest life possible.

After the Fellowship, and taking two more years to co-author a book on a holistic approach to raising children , I returned to Charlotte in 2001 to become founding director of the Carolinas Integrative Health Clinic. It was the coolest place and a great privilege to partner with patients.

You’re now a paid consultant and the face of the Harris Teeter ‘yourwellness’ initiative. How did that come about? 

In 2006, I was looking for other ways to contribute to a change in healthcare. Big hospitals change slowly. I just had this idea of improving healthcare at the point of our everyday food purchases. So I sent an email to the president of Harris Teeter, not ever thinking I would get a response, but a few days later he wrote back. The company invited me into a discussion about educating consumers about healthy food choices and how to be and stay well. We launched a comprehensive educational program about personal wellness and making better choices. I saw it as a remarkable opportunity. Harris Teeter serves almost 2 million shoppers a week. If 10% go to the website, and 10% of site visitors take action, then we’re making a significant impact. I also saw it as an opportunity to be at the table where decisions that affect our community’s wellness are made. 

What is your core message?

My core message is that healthcare begins with kindness toward ourselves. If we eat well, exercise appropriately, manage stress, and get enough sleep we can avoid the vast majority of illnesses. It is estimated that 70% of all illnesses can be prevented through good dietary and lifestyle habits. In addition, if we are further in touch with our life purpose and what we find meaningful, we may heal more readily and stay well. The role of a physician is to serve as a partner in health, although the responsibility for being well is ultimately our own.

How might we shift our culture of healthcare quickly? 

One way to shift the culture of healthcare quickly is working directly with businesses. Self-insured businesses are more likely to pay for preventive healthcare. On average, employees miss six days a year due to illness, which costs businesses approximately $2400 a year per employee. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of employees, and that is a huge expense for companies. It makes sense for companies to create a workplace of optimal health. One service my team provides is providing a gap analysis for companies: assessing the major health risks of employees, sampling the health of personnel, and delivering seminars that empower and embolden individuals to attend to their optimal wellness.

What‘s next for you? 

We are living in a remarkable time in healthcare. A conversation is underway to change healthcare in the United States and in the world. We may see far more cost effective ways of creating wellness, including insurance companies paying for preventive and integrative medicine. I’d like to help change the world for the better.

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