An Interview with Penny Pilgram George

A Q&A on integrative medicine, business, and moving the culture away from distrust

 

Penny Pilgram George

You’ve committed yourself to advancing integrative medicine at places like Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and you cofounded the Bravewell Collaborative to work on this issue nationally. What is misunderstood about integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine puts the person at the center of care, focuses on prevention and wellness as much as on curing illnesses “downstream,” and it empowers the individual to be the central agent in his or her own health. It also makes use of all appropriate healing modalities. Until the last few years people referred to this—especially the modalities—as “alternative medicine,” but in recognition that people were seeking not alternatives to Western medicine, but a full range of choices that included options that are part of Eastern medicine as well, the defining adjective of “integrative” has become the one used.

Two key elements are important to know: Integrative medicine sees people as connected in body, mind, and spirit, with immense self-healing capacities. The interventions that are taught in medical school tend to ignore this. Also, what we’re finding is that integrative medicine is not merely a way to address illness but that it shifts our mind-set to one where well-being is the goal. That is a game changer. Current research is beginning to gather the information to prove that an integrative approach to care leads to better outcomes, lower costs, and greater patient engagement—the so-called “triple aim” of healthcare reform.

 

Traditional Western medicine is not always equipped to handle the tougher emotional issues that can arise in medicine, like facing chronic or terminal illness. Why is that and what can we do about it?

Serious illness or disability is as much a spiritual crisis as a physical one. Healing is possible on a spiritual level even if it is not always possible on a physical level. Not to be able to talk about that dimension of our existence deprives us of connection and a feeling of safety. Because of its early 20th-century successes in vanquishing infectious disease and its belief in science, Western medicine tends to see death as the enemy and has tended to have more of a paternalistic approach to working with those who are sick. Financial incentives have also tended to keep medicine focused on disease and symptoms and interventions that are reimbursed, rather than addressing underlying causes and conditions of illness. And practitioners were selected for their intelligence and taught the science of medicine as defined by what could be measured and understood through a biomechanical lens. To address tough emotional issues requires a kind of human connection that has not traditionally been the purview of medicine, which is not to suggest that many health professionals have not brought their full humanity to their care of patients. Increasingly, medical training programs and those of allied professions are seeing the importance of this dimension in healing and their graduates are more open to the intimacy implicit in conversations about life and death, meaning and purpose, and other spiritual subjects.

 

What is it about having those conversations that works?

They lead to deeper connection, greater trust, more autonomy, and ultimately better medical choices. They do, however, require time. That the Affordable Care Act will cover the cost of end-of-life discussions will help make this more possible. And there are initiatives—such as one in Minnesota called Honoring Choices—that will help move the responsibility for end-of-life decision making beyond the medical institutions and into people’s homes and communities, engaging families in such important conversations. The Bravewell Collaborative has supported the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (which is comprised of 55 of the leading medical training institutions in the country) to work on training health professionals to be more whole themselves and to see their patients as whole human beings. The more we open the aperture from medical treatment to include considerations of ultimate reality, the less frightening such discussions will be.

 

In addition to health care, the George Family Foundation focuses on leadership. What’s the connection?

In both cases, we are trying to bring individuals, teams, and organizations toward wholeness. We find that as we move closer to wholeness—no matter what the domain may be—we move further from “dis-ease” and fear and distrust, and closer to authenticity, empowerment, and compassion.

 

Your foundation recently provided support for Mind and Life’s forthcoming leadership institute, which will weave in lessons from science and the wisdom traditions with business. Is the “lab” or the “church” compatible with business?

I believe that business doesn’t exist in isolation or only to serve itself but must be a part of a larger whole. In recent decades, we have seen what can happen when business success becomes an end in itself, separated from the greater good. If we understand that organizations of all types— business, governments, nonprofits—are all led by human beings who are susceptible to human frailties, then we can see the importance of fostering wholeness. What we learn about wholeness from science and from wisdom traditions provides strength and grounding to individuals within organizations, allowing them to lead from wherever they are positioned. That wholeness will affect the organization and ultimately the larger society. We are excited about the role that the Mind and Life initiative will play in fostering the kind of learning environment that will cultivate this kind of wise leadership.

 

What are the spiritual lessons that you have taken into secular, or professional, settings?

If, as it’s said, life is what happens when you are planning something else, I would say the spiritual lesson that has had the most significant impact on my work is that suffering can be a profound teacher, that illness has transformative potential. In June of 1995, I had just completed my doctorate in counseling psychology after years of raising my family and working as a consulting psychologist. Eight months later, I was dealing with surgery, chemotherapy, and a possibly fatal illness. I had had no intention of changing careers, but my experience with healing from breast cancer was, for me, transformative. I saw that however well Western medicine treated the disease I had, it did not see me as a whole human being, and gradually I resolved to do something about that. Later, I decided that the entire healthcare system was on the wrong track and expanded my aspirations beyond medicine to helping improve the health status of the whole country, to do my small part in that larger generational shift toward wellness and well-being. While I would not wish cancer on anyone, I have found my way to a richer and more meaningful life than I could have possibly imagined.

A second lesson I learned, even earlier, is that one’s thoughts to a large degree create one’s reality. I grew up in a family that experienced a lot of anxiety, and in 1972 I began meditating, to learn to calm myself. That has had tremendous impact on my life and is one reason the work of Mind and Life was so appealing to me. The interior world becomes manifested in the external world, and I wanted to bring as much peace as possible to myself and into my relations with other people. Combining both of these lessons has led me to a place of acceptance of reality, including the reality of death and dying.

 

You have a nice quote by Winston Churchill on your website: “We make a living by what we earn, we make a life by what we give.”

That quote is a reminder that there are things that matter more than the material world and the inescapable reality for most people of having to make a living. It helps us remember that it’s the difference we make, the meaning and purpose we commit to beyond ourselves, that are the ultimate gauge of a good life.

 


Penny Pilgram George, PhD, is president of the George Family Foundation in Minneapolis and a leader in the national movement to transform medicine and healthcare through the principles and practices of integrative medicine.

The recipient of numerous philanthropic awards and honors, George is cofounder of the Bravewell Collaborative, a national collaboration of philanthropists dedicated to advancing integrative medicine, and the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Allina Health in Minneapolis, the largest hospital-based integrative medicine program in the country. George received her bachelor’s degree from Duke University, her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, and her doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of St. Thomas.