Monday, April 11, 2011

Brand New Wine in the Same Old Bottle

By Bill Benda, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

Andy Rooney, famous curmudgeon.
Photo by Stephenson Brown via Flickr, used under the Creative Commons License.
One of the worst things about aging is that we tend to become intolerant. One of the best things about aging is that we can get away with it. In fact, curmudgeonly editorializing is one of my favorite current pastimes.

So this blog submission will deal with one of my personal pet peeves: conference brochures. You may have noticed these glossy advertisements in your mailbox and on your computer screen heralding the Spring peak of the semiannual convention season, exemplified by the recently adjourned Integrative Healthcare Symposium in NYC and this past weekend’s iMosaic assembly in Minneapolis, along with a cornucopia of nutrition and functional medicine and guild gatherings taking place across the country. I don’t wish to grouse about the conferences themselves (at least not at the moment), but I do have issue with the advertising touting the wonders that await.

(Cue Andy Rooney.)

So here we are – pioneers of cleaner and less toxic therapies, protagonists in the battle to provide truth and clarity to our patients, ‘advertising’ a new way of doing old business – and yet we put out glossy brochures worthy of People and Vogue. Have you ever really looked at these things? Dig one out of your trash or junk folder, and here is what you will find:

Cover page – quite possibly a panorama of a city skyline or palm fronds swaying in the balmy breeze of a beach resort town. But more likely than not you will be greeted by a group of extraordinarily attractive and happy “health-care practitioners” a la Law and Order promos – arms crossed, heads tilted slightly upwards or downwards towards the apparently seven- or three-foot tall photographer, teeth brilliant and eyes knowing. At the front is a young woman, usually blonde Caucasian but sometimes African-American, always with a white coat and stethoscope draped around her neck – clearly a physician of some order or degree. “Hi! We’re young and hip and we like this conference!” Immediately behind her is the graying yet vim white gentleman (never a woman), also with white coat and tight yet perceptive smile. “We traditionalist docs approve of this conference, too!”

From these two handsome people on to the back row we have a variety of ethnicities, always including one Asian practitioner, a second requisite female, and in the very back a white or black young man (again, never a woman) in scrubs but sans white coat. “Medical technicians can attend this conference, too, as equals!”

Turning the front page, we then delve into the remainder of the brochure and find: The row of profile photos of well-known presenters we recognize from last year’s conclave, and the year before. The ubiquitous mortar and pestle next to some unidentified herb. The close-up of an acupuncture needle inserted just so into perfectly clear and tan skin. The slender woman with leotard in a yoga or meditation pose overlooking aforementioned balmy beach, hair pulled back in a ponytail. And of course, the sponsor hotel’s tasty spread of sustenance laid out on white-clothed tables for our culinary pleasure, complete with smiling person in a chef’s hat.

Imagine if we all really looked like these people, and lived their implied existences. (I know my social life would be a lot more exciting.) But the fact is that we are not stock photo models, or Stepford-docs. We are not fetishes to the altar of our alternative therapeutic offerings. We proclaim we will not obfuscate the patient’s symptoms with drugs, or misrepresent the cause of illness as anything other than what it really is, so why are we pretending to be pretty young models when in fact we are . . . well, go look in the mirror.

What you will likely see is an actual, authentic person, lines and pouches and blemishes and all. Why don’t we put these faces on the brochure, these bodies on the beach? Why are we reproducing the very promise of physical perfection we point out as arrogant and misleading in our allopathic brethren and sistren? Why are we doing things the same old way, while stating to be somehow different?

Yes, I know this particular topic may not quite rank up there with new ways of ameliorating the side effects of chemotherapy or the nutritional impact on autistic spectrum disorder. But these ads are nothing less than a reflection of the level of the honesty our patient will be getting when we walk into the exam room.

Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina sang a song in the '70s about our flawed American political system entitled "Same Old Wine in a Brand New Bottle." What we have here is a kind of backwards take on the same problem. If we are truly offering a new, healthier wine, we really need a more transparent bottle.

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