NEW ORLEANS – The integration of lifestyle, alternative, and conventional medicine into the care of patients with multiple sclerosis can be transformative for patients and clinicians alike, according to Allen C. Bowling, MD, PhD.
This approach not only emphasizes health and wellness of the whole person, it supports the clinician-patient relationship since neurologists serve as point persons for MS patients, Dr. Bowling said at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers. “It’s critical to not just think about MS the disease, but to think about the patient’s overall health, maintaining health,” he said. “That’s a big mind shift. I think sometimes people hear the term ‘integrative medicine’ and they start walking out of the room or think it’s getting ‘woo-woo,’ but there is a very evidence-based approach to integrative medicine. The core of it still is not familiar to a lot of physicians.”
Harness ‘built-in’ resources
Dr. Bowling, author of “Optimal Health With Multiple Sclerosis: A Guide to Integrating Lifestyle, Alternative, and Conventional Medicine” (New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2014) and developer of a website devoted to integrative care and MS (), said that some of best treatment approaches may be those that use the “built-in” resources of the human body and do not require any medications, supplements, devices, or technology. “The most effective and long-lasting changes in lifestyle may be those that are small and consistent,” he said. For example, when he first started applying integrative care principles to his practice more than 16 years ago, some patients told him that MS was “one of the best things that happened to them, and that it was a gift in that it helped them clean up their lifestyle.” In the summer of 2001, one such patient came to see Dr. Bowling and said, “Since my last appointment I’ve lost 20 pounds, bought a bike. I exercise four times weekly. My wife and I have changed our diet. This is real; I’m on it.”
“I said. ‘Very impressive. How did that happen? What motivated you?’ ”
“He said, ‘You did.’ This was like a turning point in his life.”
As of May 2017, this patient has maintained his healthy lifestyle changes.
Dr. Bowling told meeting attendees that early in his neurology career he didn’t always consider other ways he could impact MS patients beyond helping them determine the best disease-modifying treatment and/or assisting them in managing symptoms. Thinking to counsel them in areas such as a balanced diet, exercise, and emotional wellness “was a mind shift for me, and made me realize how narrow my focus was,” he said. “It transformed me to go back to thinking more about general medicine. I’m a detail-oriented guy, but I don’t think that’s in the best interests of our patients. I think we need to combine very disease-specific advice with very general advice. We’re at a very important place with our patients where we can potentially have a very significant impact with our recommendations about MS as well as other medical conditions and health maintenance.”
Take baby steps
Dr. Bowling recommended that clinicians take baby steps to incorporate aspects of integrated care, including use of brief, strong supportive statements; focusing on only one issue per visit; referring patients to information resources; and sharing or transferring responsibility/accountability with other providers. Excessive focus on one therapy – including unusual and unproven CAM therapies – may detract from, or be used to avoid, other valuable approaches. For example, some of Dr. Bowling’s patients may come in very enchanted with a particular dietary supplement yet their own diet is unhealthy. “I don’t scold them, but I say, ‘I don’t think this supplement’s going to hurt you but there’s much more evidence that we should shift the focus of your motivation and drive to dietary approaches.’ ”
Use leverage to tackle emotional health
In the area of emotional health, Dr. Bowling said that an MS diagnosis often serves as a springboard to help young patients develop emotional literacy so that they don’t develop high levels of stress and anxiety. “What I find are people on the verge of entering into depression or anxiety and not really knowing how to address those emotional issues or even to do basic identification and processing of emotions, and getting attached to mind-body approaches, which I think have a clear benefit, but for many patients it does not lead to emotional literacy,” he said. “I emphasize ‘I can’t be with you 24/7. That’s your piece of the equation.’ You can also help patients identify things that give them joy, meaning, and fun in life. That’s a motivator for a lot of them – to keep doing what they find joyful, meaningful, and fun.” Dr. Bowling said that this kind of approach brings “plain old common sense” to the clinician-patient relationship. “I think we all have lots of leverage with our patients, but there’s no cookbook or algorithm here; you need to start where patients are,” he said. “Our younger patients in particular are not really listening to their primary care doctor too much. They’re paying very close attention to what we’re talking about: disease-modifying therapies and symptomatic management.”
In Dr. Bowling’s clinical experience, men often struggle with emotional health and emotional literacy issues. “I have seen amazing transformations of men in their early 20s with very low emotional literacy, and working with them, sometimes with psychodynamic psychotherapy and other methods, sometimes just talking with friends and family – really encouraging them before there’s serious anxiety or depression.” One patient told him that MS “forced me to do a year of psychotherapy and some intensive introspection for a few years. This helped me and also my family.” He recommended that clinicians tread carefully when advising men about tobacco and alcohol use, and when advising women about weight management. “Be prepared; it’s a little different every time you bring those potential issues up,” he said.
Dr. Bowling added that MS often affects how patients view the aging process itself. “It can be a crash course in how to understand the body and best use it before people technically get to the aging years,” he said. “There’s also more acceptance of disability in people who are older.” In the setting of patients who experience disease flare-ups, they may ask you if there’s anything they can do from a lifestyle standpoint to make them go away. “Be primed for these teaching moments and opportunities where there’s a seed of motivation,” he advised.
Approach treats, prevents clinician burnout
Dr. Bowling described the integrative approach to treating MS patients as “an ever-changing skill set. There’s all this talk about neurologist burnout, which is very real. If you practice this way, this is a great treatment and preventive approach for clinician burnout because your patients check you out to see if you ‘walk the walk’ on advice you give them. My success with my patients in some of these areas is less than 50%. But when there’s a real change, it’s for the life of that person. That’s the most rewarding part of my career at this point.”
Dr. Bowling disclosed that he has received research, consulting, advising, and speaking fees from Acorda, Biogen, EMD Serono, Genentech, Genzyme, Sanofi-Aventis, Teva, the American Academy of Neurology, the CMSC, the Mandell Center for Multiple Sclerosis, and the National MS Society.