Will Integrative Medicine Save Healthcare?

Image credit: Flickr user "alicepopkorn"
By Marc Stoiber

There is a revolution happening in North American medicine. If successful, it will educate and empower consumers, introduce us to a world of new cures, and leave most of us wondering ‘Why didn’t we do this 50 years ago?’

I’m talking about the integrative model of pharmacy, personified by companies like Pharmaca in the US, and Finlandia and Pure in Canada.

“There is a terrific pharmacy model in the US. And for years, it lived in a parallel universe alongside the vitamin shop model and the natural remedy model” says Mark Panzer, President and CEO of Pharmaca. “At Pharmaca, we just put it all together in a way that made sense.”

Pharmaca has demonstrated the market power of this common sense, scaling from one pharmacy in Boulder to 23 stores in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington State.

Panzer attributes the success not to stocking shelves with products running the gamut from conventional pharma to natural remedies and homeopathy. Instead, it’s about creating crossover expertise.

“The common US model is one pharmacist, and a bunch of clerks stocking shelves. In our case, we have the highly trained pharmacist, but also highly skilled practitioners with homeopathic or naturopathic backgrounds. No one expert has the full answer. Instead, we collaborate to offer our customers a more holistic approach to managing their health.“

Just The Facts (And The Care) Ma’am

Speaking with Bob Mehr, President of Pure Pharmacy in Vancouver, the importance of evidence-based remedies becomes apparent.

“Up to now, there’s been a polarization between advocates of traditional and conventional pharmacy. We believe the way forward lies in using treatments that are backed by evidence, regardless of their origin.”

Mehr says the only path to mass-market acceptance of integrative medicine will be with evidence. “I want to get rid of the whole east meets west stereotype. This isn’t about east meets west. It’s about getting the best product, or combination of products, for our customers. And those products come with proof of efficacy.”

The evidence-based model of integrative medicine is de facto in Europe. In Germany, for example, pharmacists at the ‘Apotheke’ feel completely comfortable prescribing conventional pharma, along with herbal and homeopathic supplements to augment recovery.

“They’re much more common sense about it. There’s no dogma getting in the way of helping people regain their health, no I believe vs you believe. It’s just about helping customers.”

That said, Mehr emphatically points out that compassion – an intangible asset – is an equally important part of the prescription.

“If you look at pharmacies, they’ve unwittingly set up a barrier to compassion” Mehr says, referring to the glass-walled, elevated-floor pharmacy model. “We want to create a culture where we listen, really listen, to our customers. When they feel their health is our only concern, we’ll already be making a great stride forward.”

Creating Vitality, Not Just Curing Sickness

Dr. Janice Wright, director of clinical services at InspireHealth cancer centre, thinks the current North American model of healthcare needs recalibration.

“We’ve created a system that’s all about sick-care, not health-care. We cure illness without digging deep into the cause of the illness.”

InspireHealth has been internationally recognized for its progressive, holistic approach to cancer care. “We believe 100% in the cancer care offered by Western medicine. But enduring wellness is much more likely if the patient adopts a vital, higher level of health.”

To that end, InspireHealth helps patients create psychological, spiritual, nutritional and physical change as they undergo their cancer treatment. “If stress, bad diet and lack of exercise caused your cancer, then you need to get rid of those things to keep the cancer from coming back” says Wright.

The beauty is, these simple lifestyle changes can help build up the immune system to prevent the cancer from progressing or recurring.

Who Will Own The Brand?

Integrative medicine may be making great strides. But at least in North America, it’s still in its infancy.

Its rise to prominence seems certain, given the perfect storm of aging boomers, an overburdened healthcare system, and a young generation that could end up dying before their parents because of childhood obesity and chronic diseases related to this condition.

But getting ahead of the curve may prove difficult for large drugstore chains, as their expertise base is heavily skewed toward conventional pharmacy, and their model is high volume, low profit. Given this model, introducing expert practitioners from naturopathy or homeopathy to empower patients with information may prove difficult.

This, however, opens the door for companies who can create a new model, backed by the power of ecommerce and online expertise.

Both Panzer and Mehr believe in the power of online interconnectivity as a source of greater expertise, knowledge sharing with customers, and distributing a greater range of product.

The beauty of this model is, it isn’t constrained by traditional bricks and mortar scalability issues.

The Brand Lessons

Speaking with Mehr and Panzer, I began to understand that the brand of integrative medicine demanded a shift in perspective. Instead of creating an omnipotent pharmacist, their models relied on collaboration. This bodes well for any integrative medicine brand that can open its doors to feedback, information sharing, education and ongoing learning.

Another lesson learned: patients are ready for the change, and just need to be given the tools; the successful integrative medicine brand will enable them, and make it easy for them to adopt change. Consumers have already demonstrated a penchant for absorbing new information and becoming more responsible for their own health. The increased coverage of health issues in mainstream media has only fuelled the hunger.

Finally, I believe the successful integrative medicine model demands getting outside the jar. We’ve become comfortable with our model of pharmacy, and see small incremental changes as revolutionary. Unless we get outside, objective eyes on the problem, we won’t move forward fast enough. Will we be able to develop an innovative way to shift from customer treatment to customer empowerment? Will we be able to create collaboration effectively? Or will our competition jump the curve ahead of us, and beat us to the integrative health brand of the future?

Marc Stoiber is a creative director who helps clients build resilient, futureproof brands. He writes extensively on green, brands and innovation for journals like Fast Company and Huffington Post, and speaks across North America on the subject. His collected work is at www.marcstoiber.com. This article first appeared in Huffington Post July 27th, 2011.


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5 responses

  1. I’m all for trying out natural medicine, but if this expert thinks that “stress, bad diet and lack of exercise” cause cancer, I’m not inclined to take her other advice very seriously.

    I know there are studies correlating antioxidants and fresh veggies with fewer instances of cancer, but that’s a far cry from bad diets causing cancer. As for stress and lack of exercise? They are more likely to give you high blood pressure and heart trouble than cancer.

  2. There is a huge difference between “natural” or “herbal” remedies and “homeopathic” remedies. Natural and/or herbal remedies are drugs. Some of them are possibly effective, most of them are probably not effective. The more popular of these drugs have been tested countless times (there is literally a government center whose sole purpose is to study these drugs) and most of them have not been proven to be particularly effective. Still, the ones that have been found to be useful for particular conditions (like St John’s Wort for depression) are now commonly recommended by “traditional” doctors. The ones that are “ignored” are, generally speaking, the ones that aren’t effective. For a reasonably fair list, check out:


    Homeopathy, on the other hand, is utter and complete rot. It is not based on science, nor is it based on evidence or actual research. It is not traditional (it was invented in Germany in the 19th century) and it is not based on folk wisdom, integrative medicine, or anything other than the purest chicanery. Seriously, if you have always thought that homeopathy was just some sort of other type of alternative medicine, go read a wikipedia article or even an article written by homeopathy enthusiasts about “how” it works. You will think it is an utter joke, which it is, but unfortunately, we’re the punchline.

    The fact that Pharmaca sells homeopathic “remedies” in addition to natural supplements and that they employ homeopathic experts is proof that they are not serious about health. If they really cared about making alternative medicines more mainstream and establishing a more “collaborative” relationship, then they would separate the wheat from the chaff and drop the homeopathic garbage. Their reluctance to do this shows that they are as mercenary and profit-driven as their competitors.

  3. I should say that the “drug store” model is awful, the service stinks and the pharmacist and his aids don’t know me and aren’t helpful at all.

    I am only 29, but I remember going to a real Pharmacy. The one that had a deli there as well as all of your pharmaceutical needs. The Pharmacist knew our names, he knew our entire family, he knew everything about us. He was as instrumental in our health care as our pediatrician.

    I don’t recall him ever giving us anything other than Tylenol or Robitussin. If you had a tummy ache you got a Coke first, if that didn’t work you took some Pepto-Bismol.

    I can only assume that stores like Wal-Greens and CVS put my pharmacist out of business, but I can’t help but think that there has been so much unnessary government regulation and medical malpractice costs put on our pharmacists, that they can no longer afford to practice the way they used to…

    I could be wrong, he probably just died and no one told me, or maybe he just wasn’t a good businessman.

    All that to say this…anything that will make going to the pharmacist more enjoyable, I’m all for. I do believe that we are growing to dependent on “Big Pharma”, though I applaud what they have done for us! Our standard of living and health care is unparalled with any country or era.

  4. As a representative of Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, I would like to respond to the homeopathic medicine posting.

    Homeopathy has been used for more than 200 years, building a remarkable safety record and generating a great body of knowledge. Medicinal modalities developed and used prior to the development of pharmaceutical medicines are generally referred as “traditional medicines,” which includes homeopathic medicine. Homeopathic medicine draws heavily on the folklore plant medicine tradition. Finally, certain homeopathic medicines are well researched with well over 580 homeopathic medicine clinical studies posted on PubMed.

    Homeopathy is used by millions of consumers in more than 65 countries and recommended by more than 400,000 healthcare providers. Since the passing of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, homeopathic medicines have been regulated as drugs by the FDA. To be accepted as a homeopathic medicine by the FDA, product ingredients must be identified in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS) or be generally accepted as homeopathic under the principles of homeopathy. Being regulated as a drug, as opposed to a food or dietary supplement, ensures that homeopathic medicines adhere to drug labeling specifications. Like packaging for conventional over-the-counter drugs, packaging for homeopathic medicines must state specific diseases, ailments or symptoms for which the product is to be used, the concentration of active substance or substances contained therein, the recommended dosage and the mode of application.

    As an integrative pharmacy. Pharmaca provides both traditional and conventional medicines. We honor the cultural traditions these medicines originate from, and strive to provide the highest quality brands within these modalities. Pharmaca supports homeopathic medicine as reliable and safe drugs.

    Thanks for your comment.
    -Don Summerfield, VP of Integrative Medicine, Pharmaca

  5. Guys like Bob Mehr and Mark Panzer are just out to sell you anything. They are strictly business people that feed on people’s fears and all the hypochondriacs. Not only do they want your prescription business, but now they also want to sell you natural products.

    Some of these products I am sure are beneficial but when you go into some of these stores, the inventory is so huge which leads me to believe that there are probably more false claims with these products than there are legitimate ones.

    Watch out for sales people like these fellows as they are really putting business dollars over your health and well being!

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