Genuine cause for optimism | Robin Daly

Our founder, Robin Daly, shares his thoughts following ‘Starting the Conversation’, the Yes to Life annual conference…

For well over a decade, Yes to Life has been working to give direct support to people in the UK with cancer who want to know what they can do to help themselves, how they can improve their odds and their wellbeing. This work is central to the charity and it includes operating our helpline of trained volunteers, commissioning thousands of personalised reports to deliver information on good treatment choices, giving small grants to support the purchase of integrative therapies, as well as the broader outreach of workshops and seminars to empower individuals.

Lifestyle Medicine, as it is now called, has come in from the cold. When Yes to Life was first established, any and all approaches outside of the orthodox methods of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery were derided and often met with outright hostility. While this is still sadly true to some extent, a new wave of thinking is emerging within healthcare that places Lifestyle Medicine, and therefore Yes to Life, firmly at the centre of health agendas that are focused around patient choice, patient-centred care and self-management. Fourteen years after Yes to Life’s founding, our mission is beginning to find a wider audience, and our commitment to Integrative Medicine is at last receiving the validation it deserves.

Another important facet of the work of the charity is to drive the agenda for integration forward. Our key vehicle for this is our annual conference, which this year showcased some of the most inspiring examples of new developments in healthcare. Speaker after speaker built the ground for optimism about the future of medicine. By the end of the day, there was simply no escaping the fact that we are at the start of a new era, in which the narrow attitudes within the NHS that we have become so inured to, are at last showing the first signs of losing their ubiquitous hold, as a new generation picks up the banner of Lifestyle Medicine.

In the past, the NHS has maintained its credibility through insularity. Its record for acute care is justifiably high, but the balance in healthcare has swung massively towards the management of chronic conditions. In this, its performance has been lacklustre at best. Up until recently, unsupported statements about ‘the best healthcare system in the world’ were sufficient to win the approval of the masses, but increasingly, as the NHS’ performance has been set on the world stage, its shortcomings have become unavoidable.

The morning sessions of our conference were dedicated to bringing in some international perspective: what is working elsewhere, what can we learn from it? After ‘setting the scene’ for the day, Patricia Peat, Director of our partners Cancer Options, introduced Ashwin Mehta MD who leads the Integrative Medicine department of a large hospitals group in Florida. Amongst many interesting insights and comparisons, Dr Mehta was able to tell us how, simply by having the right professionals on site, readily to hand, a ‘third way’ opens up for ‘at risk’ patients. The ‘black and white’ rigidity that currently exists in the UK where you either ‘do nothing’ (aka ‘watchful waiting’, ‘active surveillance’) or you get treated in ways that are often highly damaging, physically, mentally, socially and in many other ways. It’s a brutal system that operates like an on/off switch, offering many people the choice of too little (the agony of waiting to get a diagnosis of cancer) or too much (prostate cancer treatment for example can often result in incontinence and impotence). Before being thrown into the nightmare of cancer treatment, those seen to be at risk are given the option to avoid or at least contain the development of cancer, by engaging in a range of non-toxic, healthy lifestyle approaches, whilst receiving the assurance of being carefully monitored. This is an enormous step forward that can avert many diagnoses completely, a win for both the public and the healthcare service.

Dr Abdul Slocum, from the ChemoThermia Clinic in Istanbul, gave us his perspective on the logic of adding relatively cheap integrative approaches to standard protocols. The striking results the clinic is achieving with hard to treat cancers are a testament to the validity of this approach, which relies on known techniques that massively undercut the astronomically expensive new products of the pharmaceutical industry, whilst challenging their best achievements.

The afternoon sessions were entirely focused on some of the most exciting developments and initiatives by individuals, organisations and the government, to overhaul our healthcare. Student doctors Ally Jaffee and Iain Broadley, dismayed by the lack of nutrition and lifestyle content in their training, set up Nutritank to remedy the situation. It has taken hold right across the UK, clearly meeting a much broader dissatisfaction with the direction of medicine. Their enthusiastic endorsement of Lifestyle Medicine brought spontaneous applause from our delighted audience, who have long been used to a tragic lack of support from the medical world for their lifestyle successes.

Dr Marie Polley of Westminster University, a powerhouse for change and Chair of the Social Prescribing Network, spelled out the rapid development and take-up of Social Prescribing, and what this means to people on the ground: how it is creating genuinely helpful lifestyle options for the 20% of doctor visits for which the only resource previously available has been the completely unsuitable option of medication with drugs.

In tandem with Social Prescribing, I was delighted to be able to present the very significant news concerning the evolution of Personal Health Budgets. It has been a very long time coming, but PHBs represent one of the first manifestations of genuine choice and patient-centred care. Through a jointly agreed budget, patients with long-term conditions get the freedom to spend in a way that generates the most benefit for them, and PHBs are already proving their merit both for patients and by reducing costs.

The event reached a high-energy conclusion as our inspired final presenter, Jon Liebling, spoke about the recent change in the law concerning cannabis as a medicine that he and the United Patients Alliance had worked so hard for, as well as their plans to move the agenda much further in the coming months.

Up until recently, the biggest drive for change towards integration came from the public and campaigning groups such as Yes to Life. This movement is now starting to meet the most forward-looking elements within our NHS in a shared vision for a future in which healthcare looks very different, a future in which much more than lip service is given to patient choice and patient-centred care. The coming year will see Yes to Life ramping up the pressure for change as well as building on the foundations already established for collaboration with other campaigners, with health professionals from all sectors, and with the NHS. It is truly heartening that we are beginning at last to see the fruits of our efforts to modernise healthcare, but this is no time for complacency – rather it’s the time to ‘step on the gas’.

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