An “unthinkable” future without antibiotics, as once easily treated infections rage out of control – this is the “nightmare scenario” painted in graphic detail by media outlets around the world over the past couple of weeks.
News stories have been speaking of infections “nearly impossible to treat”, with drug-resistant strains of superbugs endangering the world’s health on a level with AIDS or a flu pandemic.
The frightening scenario, underlined by apocalyptic headlines and warnings from experts, was triggered by comments from Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the UN’s World Health Organisation, at a gathering of infectious disease experts in Copenhagen.
‘’A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” she told the meeting.
Anyone reading these reports – and the WHO’s recently released book on the subject – could be forgiven for thinking we face a very uncertain future indeed.
But could it be a storm cloud with a silver lining? Might there be fresh approaches to health care waiting in the wings as the so-called “miracle medicine” of antibiotics apparently passes its use-by date?
There are certainly a number of thinkers today who are calling for radically different health care approaches. The ever-intriguing TED talks, for instance, have: highlighted a technology-based personal health movement that could keep “50 percent of care out of institutions, clinics, hospitals and nursing homes”; called for a wholesale return to “the old-fashioned physical exam, the bedside chat, the power of informed observation”; and stressed the need to overhaul a culture of denial that prevents doctors from improving patient care by learning from their mistakes.
Another thinker stressing the need for medicine to evolve is Larry Dossey, a practicing internist and internationally renowned advocate of “the role of the mind in health and the role of spirituality in healthcare”.
The first, he says, is the familiar approach of “mechanical, material, or physical medicine”.
The second is the era of “mind-body medicine” with which physicians and patients have become increasingly acquainted through therapeutic use of psychoneuroimmunology, the “relaxation response”, mindfulness, biofeedback and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Mind-body medicine recognises our thoughts play a significant role in establishing and restoring our health. Such a thought-body link-up has been widely explored and documented by scientific researchers, most notably through studies into the placebo effect – the effective use of dummy treatments with no inherent chemical value.
The third era offers a new glimmer of sunlight on the horizon – a time in which, Dossey says, we will see that “mind is a factor in healing both within and between persons”.
The latter includes the tantalising prospect of increasing our individual sense of ownership over our well-being.
But it often takes the jarring prospect of a system’s impending failure to finally prompt us to look at other intriguing possibilities.
Could WHO’s disheartening prognosis effectively be signalling such a transitional time, a breaking of new ground?
Because the very core of “third era medicine” now clamouring for our attention is actually the health-giving power of a more spiritual approach to living.
As Dossey puts it: “The power of love to change bodies is legendary, built into folklore, common sense, and everyday experience.”
Struggling for years with a recurring sinus infection, which antibiotics failed to reach, I was introduced to a spiritual approach to healing. Implementing this practice at a time of suffering, my pain diminished and it disappeared soon after. That was 25 years ago and I have never since suffered from that problem.
Such experiences are frequently dismissed as “anecdotal evidence”, as opposed to scientific data. As Hope College Professor of Psychology David Myers has put it: “Although compelling, stories and anecdotes do not determine empirical truth.”
Nevertheless, those improvements in health are very real to the individual who finds permanent relief from a need unmet by medicine.
As WHO’s well-meaning warning rings in our ears there is the possibility for us to move beyond the borders of preconceived, material expectations and explore more spiritual avenues. As we do so, we might find ourselves entering a new period of empowerment.
Antibiotics may one day be a thing of the past, as Dr Chan suggested, but a nightmare scenario of uncontrollable infections does not have to be our future.
This article was first published in The Independent as Could the mind play a bigger role in healthcare?