Body & Fitness

How to pre-empt illness

Why we need to move from medical cures to prevention.
Dr Kathleen Wills

You could be forgiven for mistaking us for a healthy country. We’ve never been more aware of wellness, as we spout our theories on paleo and veganism and gluten.

In reality, we’ve never been sicker. With rates of obesity, diabetes and disease rising, as well as costs, we can’t afford to get sick, but too many of us can’t afford to stay well. So where to from here?

The future of health

Let us walk you through a utopia of future wellness. Medical centres are not just for doctors, but fully integrated wellness centres where your nutritionist sits alongside your GP. Natural medicine, which incorporates traditional Chinese practises and modern vitamins, is prescribed as a viable option to complement your medication. And the biggest change? You visit the wellness centre when you’re feeling healthy, rather than when you’re feeling sick.

It’s a move from curative health, to preventative health, that integrative doctor Dr Kathleen Wills would like to see. At her current practice, appointments with patients last for 45 minutes (three times the length of the average GP appointment) to ensure every physical, emotional and mental symptom is discovered and discussed.

And this is what she would like to see in the future, to help identify deficiencies before they become diseases.

“From a young age – even when we’re children – I’d like to see people going in and getting a full assessment of all of their holistic health needs. Their diet, their exercise, their conventional medical symptoms, their emotional state. And it needs to be covered by the government – or at least partially subsidised – so people are proactive about their health.”

Dr Kathleen Wills, pictured with her Siberian husky Una.

In the United States, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act has dedicated a sizeable portion of its funding to integrative health, a move Wills would like to see replicated here.

“We can’t afford not to look at preventative health, when it comes to curing and treating these ongoing health problems. Our population is ageing. We have more people in the next 10 years who are going to be in that elderly group than are going to be in the workforce. So what are we going to do with all those people?”

Wills believes knowledge is power when it comes to facing – and possibly preventing – the diseases that strike down the older generation. She is an advocate of genetic testing, a practice not currently allowed in New Zealand.

You simply spit in a tube, the tube is sent to Australia for testing and you receive a full genetic profile of your body – what diet suits you, what exercise is best for you, and any genetic predisposition for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, or breast cancer.

“While we can’t tell you we’re going to make it 100% impossible for you to contract or develop this disease, we can reduce your risk of getting that genetic marker to show itself. This is preventative medicine at its best.”

The reality of health

The idea of a personalised prescription for long-term health is extremely appealing, as is the idea of being able to take a proactive stance when it comes to dealing with the kind of disease diagnosis we all live in fear of.

However, Sovereign chief medical officer Dr John Mayhew says informing patients of health risks is not even close to being a sure-fire way of reducing them.

“How many people still smoke? How much does alcohol still cost our country? The amount of exercise one needs to do to stay healthy isn’t much – but the average New Zealander doesn’t exercise a lot.”

He believes education can only take you so far, and personal responsibility is more important than ever.

With the cost of living rising, and salaries not, healthcare is sometimes left behind as a financial necessity. But you can only ignore your health for so long before your body makes you pay attention. Mayhew says diabetes, for example, is a “tsunami about to hit the New Zealand health service”.

And it’s not solely a health issue, but also a social issue, Mayhew believes, identifying cold houses, poor ventilation and sharing beds as some of the reasons “medicine and economics are inextricably linked”.

So how do we avoid a future where good health is something only available for the wealthy?

“There has to be a rationalising of health services,” Mayhew says. “You see that with Pharmac [Pharmaceutical Management Agency] now, when they won’t approve a drug which is hugely expensive for the treatment of cancer. That’s going to happen increasingly – we’re going to say we have the technology, we have the drugs… but can we afford to use them?”

Preventative medicine: 6 ways to get started

  1. Have a check-up: Go to your GP, get a blood test, a cholesterol check, a blood-pressure reading. An overview of your general state of health is a great place to start, and a good way to learn what you need to be paying attention to.

  2. Get a mole check: We have high rates of melanoma in New Zealand and yet it’s often still not second nature to get our skin checked for problem spots and freckles.

  3. Family history: Find out what diseases or health concerns your family have. We may have an awareness of the big diseases, like Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, and prostate, but it’s worth finding out if you have a family history of addictions like alcoholism, or of mental health issues like depression.

  4. Screening: Talk to your GP and find out if you should be having appropriate treatments for breast, cervical or bowel cancer.

  5. Nutrition: If you’re feeling run down and have been for a while, it could be worth seeing a nutritionist to make sure you’re eating the right foods. Unknown food allergies can cause a lot of discomfort.

  6. Good habits: A lifestyle that consists of good quality food, limited alcohol, no smoking and regular movement is still one of the best ways to maintain overall health. If you know you’re falling short in one of these areas, it’s never too late to start.

Words by: Emma Clifton

Photos: Emily Chalk

Hair and makeup by: Sharon Laurence-Anderson

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