Unstuck: Clearing the Path for Dr. Sarno's Mindbody Movement

Since the 1980s, Dr. John Sarno has been effectively treating “incurable” chronic conditions with his mindbody approach. His patients refer to him as “America’s Best Doctor” and a “living saint.” His methods are hailed as “miracle cures” and have been featured on shows like Howard Stern and 20/20 (Howard & 20/20's John Stossel were patients). He published several books before he retired, one that raised serious questions towards the mainstream medical community, titled The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorder. Some of the nation’s leading physicians have expanded on his work and gone on to write their own books, hold lectures, and successfully implement his methods in their own practices. Each of these physicians maintains that this is the safest and most effective treatment they have to offer for chronic pain.

But after 35 years of refining and practicing this approach, it still only reaches a fraction of the population who suffers from chronic pain. Today, we speak with Dr. David Schechter to understand why that is.

Dr. Schechter has more continuous years of experience providing the mindbody approach than any other active physician. He has been named to lists of America’s Top Doctors by Men’s Health, Hollywood Reporter, and US News and World Report. Read on to hear his thoughts on the state of the mindbody movement, its future, and the opportunities to build a bridge to the mainstream.

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Mindbody medicine is unique in that patients must accept its principles in order to be treated effectively. What role do you think the marketing and branding has played in the movement so far? What opportunities for improvement do you see?

The terminology still needs to be improved. Our work is not so easily captured in a “sound bite” or a twitter “tweet.” The ever present fear that we will be misinterpreted as “blaming the victim,” rather than empowering the patient is still a factor. The old term “psychosomatic” - which just means mind-body - has awful connotations for many people. We need to continue to work on the message, terminology, and communication to expand awareness and create a deeper understanding of what we are offering.

Over the last several years, technology has caused huge shifts in the way care is delivered to patients. What kind of opportunities do you think technology can unlock for the mindbody movement?

This movement has uniquely been about giving patients the power to heal rather than the doctor prescribing a pill or doing a surgery. The trend today with technology, apps, smart phones, streaming video, etc. is to make each person the master of their fate and the ultimate health care decision maker. The doctor as “advisor” role is very comfortable for physicians with this mindbody perspective because treatment has always been more about education and guidance than it has about dictating a plan.

Online programs can help keep a patient on track, allow daily practice or involvement in a treatment program, and offer reminders, tips, etc. The potential to anonymously gather data may also offer insight into recovery process from these conditions. The online presence is crucial as people look on the internet for health information, it bypasses “conventional” practitioners and clinics, and it expands the reach of this work. The successful combination of the high-touch work we do with patients along with the high-tech use of online programs could be a powerful synergy for this field.

Research is the foundation of any approach that’s widely adopted in the mainstream. So far, what has the research been like for mindbody medicine? What can be done to move it closer toward the mainstream?

Research is a key in this field and is far behind the clinical advances. We don’t have big pharma to fund our work; they are looking for new medicines. Large institutions have rigid bureaucracies and entrenched leadership that has not, to date, sponsored research in this area. A small area of the NIH has provided some funding for mindbody research, but there is a long way to go. And to get those grants, you have to have an established track record of research. Most of our doctors are clinicians, not academicians, so that is another factor. Finally, research on an educational, psychological intervention is inherently more complex than comparing a blood pressure pill that is yellow and round to a sugar pill that is yellow and round in a double blind, controlled study.

The American College of Physicians recently released new guidelines for the treatment of back pain that favor nondrug therapies, including psychological therapies. What does this mean for the mindbody movement?

With the opiate treatment peak receding, doctors, medical groups, and insurance companies are looking for an alternative to medications. This new set of guidelines is consistent with this updated approach (something we’ve been doing for many, many years). So it does provide more push for a treatment approach that is not medication focused and includes a psychological of behavioral component.

The healthcare landscape is shifting, gradually, glacially it seems. The mainstream is reaching, searching for approaches and treatments that are safer, clinically effective, and cost effective. If our “movement” comes together in an even more powerful way at this point in time, exponential progress can be made.

At this point in time, why is it so important to scale the mindbody movement? What’s at stake for healthcare professionals, patients, and the healthcare system?

Mindbody treatment methodologies have been a niche for some time. Dr. Sarno, for example, is well known by millions of patients… and very few physicians. The newer generation of clinicians also have busy practices, but there are so many more people that need this kind of help. So, with the factors mentioned above (seeking non-pharma approaches), with the perpetual need to control health care costs, and with patients seeking more integrative approaches, this is the time.

With the shift in healthcare, continued pressure on high cost/high risk procedures and medications, and the potential to leverage an educational/psychological approach with new technology, an important opportunity has arisen. We must take advantage of this opportunity…. what’s at stake after all is reducing pain, improving health, saving money, and transforming the patient-doctor relationship… that’s all!

David Schechter MD

Author, Think Away Your Pain

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