Friday, 3 October 2014

pill-popping or hearts and minds?

Today's news has included an article about a new pill for men and women who drink excessively, to help them reduce their alcohol intake. It has made the headlines and induced discussions in the media, with the slant of being a new "wonder-drug" that will help many people.

That's great, isn't it?

Yes, it is great,

I don't think there is anything wrong with taking medication. I am a nurse, so I spend a great deal of my time administering tablets, medicines, drips and antibiotics to help make the people I look after, better. This is fine.


I do also feel that as a society, we are easily swayed by medications to combat illness. We are conditioned to believe that a pill will make everything better, again. I find myself telling my children that "this medicine will make you feel better", or telling my patient, "this tablet will take the pain away", or "this antibiotic will kill the bug you have". Yes, they may well do, and invariably, that is what happens.


Why do we think that we are only capable of fixing ourselves with a pill? What is it about our fixation with medicines to cure all ills? As a nurse, if I have a patient who is agitated, anxious or confused, the planned route would be to speak to the doctor to get a tablet to calm the patient down.


With increasing frequency, I am using mindfulness techniques in my clinical practice to help my patients. I have had some surprising and successful results, from children to the elderly; from the scared and confused to the acutely ill, climbing-the-walls-with-pain patients.
For example, about a year ago I did a shift in A&E and was looking after a very scared, confused elderly lady. She did not know she was in hospital, and was desperate to go home. She had fallen at home and was very unsteady on her feet in the department, which was dangerous because she repeatedly got up from her chair to try to find her way into the cold, wet morning in her dressing gown and slippers. I sat down with her, did some breathing and focusing work with her, and then did a 5-minute meditation with her. As she relaxed in her chair, she settled, and then dozed off! In the time it would have taken me to either speak to a doctor about getting something to make her less agitated, or tried to get her to sit in her chair by telling her where she was, what had happened to her, and answered the repeating questions, thereby increasing her agitated state, I had simply taught her to relax her body and her mind for long enough for her to fall asleep.


It works! So much so, that I am taking this further, starting with teaching mindfulness and meditation to my colleagues and other staff at the trust I work in.

Coming back to the news today, though, makes me feel a slight disappointment. Not because I don't think the tablet will work, as it sounds very effective; but because it compounds the all-round belief that we can only be fixed with conventional medicine. It reinforces the increasing belief in our society that the NHS can be relied upon to fix everybody, and it increases the "clinical" perception that society's health can only be managed "clinically". We are generally losing our ability to see things more holistically, that there can be some other frameworks that support an individual to take better care of themselves, manage their existing conditions as a "bundle" of care rather than singularly; and that by teaching people to connect within to understand why, for example, they feel the need to drink 3 pints of beer a night, they might be able to reduce their intake and feel healthier as a result.

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