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Health Care For The Romantic

Because the word “romantic” can be fraught with misinterpretations, it’s very important that we get our terms right. It may seem strange, but I’m not referring to the relationship type of romantic you’re most familiar with, the story that starts as eyes meet (across a cocktail bar, a garden party, an operating room table) and several chapters of misunderstandings later, lips linger as the curtain falls.

If you Google “Are you romantic?” or “How to be a romantic” a dozen obvious quizzes pop up, worded to reassure you that you are, indeed, a romantic person at heart. Everyone, even the most jaded of us, wants to be one.

But for this Health Tip, the romantic we’re referring to goes back almost 200 years, to what cultural historians called The Romantic Era. Although love and affection were very much involved (the poets Keats, Shelley, and Lord Byron wrote plenty of love poems), the half century between 1800 and 1850 as lived by artists, writers, painters, musicians, and intellectuals was a revolt against the so-called Age of Enlightenment–the Industrial Revolution—which in their view turned nature from spiritual beauty and interconnectedness into an exploitable “science.”

The Romantics watched the polluted urban sprawl of the Industrial Revolution with horror.

The Romantic Movement
The movement itself emphasized intense emotional feeling over cold rationality. Yes, relationships between people were important, but so were intensely emotional responses to the beauties of nature, music, and paintings. Romantics sought a return to the “natural,” a simpler way of life, folk art, and folk customs. Emotional feelings, individual imagination, and spontaneity were valued over science, and personal intuition was held in highest regard.

The Romantics felt bonds with everything on earth–animals, a beautiful scene, a painting, a poem, a peasant farmer—and sought to connect with it all.  The word “realism,” the admonishment to “be realistic,” and the phrases “hard science will prove” and “clinical studies have shown” are all the polar opposites of Romanticism.

How the Romantic Movement affects medicine two centuries later seems fairly self-evident. The vast majority of conventional, so-called mainstream physicians are hardcore Realists, definitely not Romantics. They unabashedly and with a sense of pride trace their beginnings to The Enlightenment.

Where are the Romantics today?
Tucked away in a much smaller minority, identified as alternative medicine by the Realists, alternative practitioners and their patients (you might even be one) are residuals of the Romantic era of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Romantic? Just ponder some of the different modalities in alternative medicine:

Chinese  More than 5,000 years old, practitioners penetrate the skin with ultrafine needles (acupuncture) or apply heated glass globes (cupping). They mix blends of herbs taken as tea. All this is to re-balance disruptions of your qi, the invisible energy coursing through your body.

Herbalism  Plant-based therapies handed down literally from the dawn of man.

Homeopathy  Ultra-tiny amounts of natural substances that trigger a shift in your body’s vital force (a re-naming of qi).

Reiki/Healing Touch/Intuitive Healing  A gentle manipulation of your qi by a healer whose hands are held several inches from your body or (when practiced by a highly skilled intuitive) who may actually be miles away from you.

Even chiropractic and osteopathy, which, according to original texts, used spinal manipulation  to direct self-healing energies (there’s your qi again) down your spine.

Is there a more Romantic endeavor than Bach Flower Therapies? Petals from a variety of flowers are floated atop stilled water until their energies disperse into it. Drops of the water, taken by mouth, are used to strengthen you in times of troubling emotional challenge. Gentian for discouragement, honeysuckle for living in the past, and 36 others. Poetic? Indeed. Could be something from Shakespeare.

And the names are lyrical. Evening primrose oil just has a nicer sound than Adalimumab (Humira). Or passion flower, so named because when Spanish Christian missionaries looked directly into the flower they saw symbols of Christ’s crucifixion (nails, whips, a hammer, crown of thorns).

Patients want more
For decades now, I’ve been talking to patients who arrive at WholeHealth Chicago seeking alternative therapies for different conditions or, quite commonly, simply wanting an integrative approach to their care (“Acupuncture is fine, but sometimes you need a surgeon to take out your appendix”).

Most are becoming very anxious about where conventional medicine is headed…or has already arrived. Here are some quotes from what might be called the “anxious Romantics” describing their encounter with a Realist physician:

“I’m really in touch with my body and something isn’t right. I just kept being told my tests were normal.”

“My intuition told me not to get radiation to my thyroid. The doctor told me I was being stupid. I didn’t listen to my intuition and I haven’t been well since.”

“The doctor rolled his eyes in contempt when I asked if there were something natural I could take instead of his prescription.”

“She said my herbs weren’t FDA-approved and could be dangerous.”

“I waited for hours in the emergency room and then found myself having an MRI, which didn’t show anything and I was sent home. I was so frightened and all I really needed was someone to tell me I’d be all right.”

“When I said my medical intuitive sensed something wrong in my right ovary, he laughed at me, told me not to waste his time, and walked out of the room.”

“I had a dream about my right breast and, pretty much just to humor me, the doctor investigated. He found a small tumor there.”

I’m sure you’re getting my drift.

An interesting question to ask is “How did it get like this?” In one word: money. Sorry for the mundane explanation.

Every year, our healthcare system generates so much money (16% of our entire gross national product, or $3.2 trillion) that in order to maintain this obscene revenue stream medical students, residents, and physicians are literally brainwashed by their superiors into believing that an “evidence-based” scientific system is the only way and that everyone else (the alternative Romantics) are seriously deluded.

Although  the phrase evidence-based medicine has a sanctimonious ring to it, if you read one of the several evidence-based medical journals being published, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to discover virtually all of the allegedly unbiased clinical studies are underwritten by Big Pharma. An even more disturbing trend is Little Pharma, small companies cobbled together by venture capitalists and hedge fund managers that purchase an inexpensive generic, rebrand it, and sell it for thousands of times its original price. This is what pharma-bro Martin Shkreli is now in the clink for, but there are dozens of Shkrelis who are simply keeping a low profile.

If health insurance companies would refuse to authorize an elective surgical procedure, a referral to an egregiously priced specialist, or a prescription to an insanely priced drug until a course of alternative therapy and lifestyle changes were tried and failed, the entire conventional system would start crumbling away, much like Ozymandias in Shelley’s romantic poem.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Patricia Battaglia says:

    Very interesting, well done.

  2. Catherine Witek says:

    Dear Dr. Edelberg,
    Thank you for this beautifully written tribute to “romantic” medicine. I am convinced!

  3. Jonathan Miller says:

    Rock on, Dr. E! Thanks for the historical perspective. Yes, the ûber-rational approach has its advantages, but it has its own orthodoxy and fundamentalism. Sometimes intuition is the best, supported by sympathetic health-care providers!

  4. Jill Hileman says:

    The sad thing, and very telling of where modern healthcare is at, is Shkreli didn’t get sentenced for fleecing poor people with his price gouging. He got jail time for bilking wealthy investors–securities fraud. That’s apparently going too far.

  5. Deb S says:

    Wonderful blog although Martin Shkreli is in prison for investment fraud, not the insane markup on the generic his firm bought. If that were the case, the makers of EpiPen would be too.

  6. Cookie says:

    Shkrelli was never punished for egregiously raising the price of the life-saving drug Daraprim from $13/dose to $750/dose after purchasing the license to manufacture it. That was and still is perfectly legal. He was jailed on securities fraud charges. Price increases (often outright gouging) appears to be in the growth-plan of most pharmaceutical companies. Shkrelli was just impatient wanted it all at once and got called out by the media. But like I said it is not illegal and he would happily be continuing to gouge his customers today if it weren’t for his missteps with securities.

  7. Barbara Newman says:

    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! The “greed is good” ethos of the 1980s has never left us, although it flies in the face of every religious tradition in the world. Wealth for the few can only mean misery for the many. Thank you for reminding us that one part of Romanticism was empathy for the “common man,” as we used to say. –Barbara

  8. Susan Helmer says:

    Thanks for the encouragement. Going from minimal doctor visits to the engulfment of my husband’s (conventional) cancer treatments, I needed to hear that voice in the wilderness.

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