Photo courtesy of Erika Schwartz
Dr. Erika Schwartz is an internationally known pioneer in the field of preventative health care that focuses on preventing disease by addressing lifestyles, whole body and mind treatments. She was one of the first doctors in the US to treat patients with bio-identical hormones, conduct biomarker testing, and to administer preventative IVs. She is a graduate of NYU and received her MD from SUNY-Downstate College of Medicine Cum Laude. She is a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society and the author of six books. We discuss her journey from medical school to forming her own integrative approach to healthcare that seeks to prevent disease by taking a holistic and long-term understanding of each patient. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What made you shift from a conventional medicine to a preventative, integrative approach?
The traditional route just wasn’t working for me. I have always thought of myself as a healer. I come from a family full of doctors and was exposed to conventional medicine from very early on. From the age of five I wanted to be a doctor. In my mind, I thought becoming one was the ultimate access to becoming a healer. It would provide the credentials and scientific training to heal people. I was wrong. Conventional medicine does not have the tools necessary to heal. Conventional medicine waits for something to go bad, it is there to diagnose, label and treat disease. It is reactive rather than preventative.
Where did you start your journey?
My first job at the age of twenty eight was working as a trauma surgeon. When people are really sick and they are brought to a trauma centre, their lives are usually saved. But I also noticed that sometimes people survived when they shouldn’t have and there were other times when people died when they shouldn’t have. It occured to me that we didn’t have the decision making powers that we thought we had to save lives. I moved from emergency trauma care to my own private practice because I wanted an ongoing relationship with my patients. I realised very quickly that I was wasting mine and my patients’ time by always looking for something wrong that I could diagnose and then kickstart the process of referring them to specialists. It dawned on me that there was this huge amount of time that was being wasted when you were waiting for something to go wrong. I never asked a patient for example, although everything is normal with your medical tests, I can see that you are clearly still fatigued and facing issues so let us talk about your family life, about the stressors in your life, your thoughts, sleep and eating habits. I started thinking about what I c
What was the perception from others when you started this alternative medicine route?
There wasn’t much in the field and a lot of alternative medicine was quackery. Yoga and meditation were considered Eastern things, out there. Supplements were considered harmful because they treated everything and at medical school, we are taught that every drug treats something specific. This is not true. We just call it side effects in medicines. So it took me a while to unlearn these views and form my own opinion of how to effectively heal patients.
What led you to question the current healthcare system and adopt your own, unique approach to treating patients?
Conventional medicine is centred around public health, which has made a lot of incredible achievements such as eradicating smallpox. But it’s also done a lot of harm such as creating a world that is dependent on the outcomes of public health, when in fact we are all individuals with our own unique makeup and don’t all necessarily fit into the same, unilateral approach. When you look at treating disease from a public health perspective, you are looking at numbers and the whole population at large. You’re not looking at the individual level, at patients. We become unimportant because we are only seen in the millions. I want to bring this down to the individual level, to empower people to take control of their health and remove the fear that is created by health officials. There is this prevailing notion that doctors know what’s best for you. It’s not doctors, it’s you. It’s your body and only you can know what feels right for yourself. The role of a doctor should be to teach their patients to listen to their bodies.
Can you describe your current approach to treating patients?
After running a trauma centre and observing sick people, it dawned on me that doctors don’t have to wait for people to suffer from disease. I thought we should figure out ways to help people prevent disease from occurring. I stumbled upon hormones because no one was looking at them. Hormones explain how we fit together and how the body is governed. I realised you need a complete approach, looking at diet, stress, mindfulness and all the psychological aspects of the patient. You need to understand the entire patient and their environment to know what is making them feel suboptimal. It takes decades from the point of feeling suboptimal to getting sick and it is possible to prevent something from going wrong by starting to detect the symptoms early on.
When someone comes in, the first thing I ask is how they are really feeling. It is a physiological response as when a patient knows that a doctor cares about you and is listening to you, you are more likely to heal. It gives me an instant, deep connection to the patient. They need to think about how they are feeling so they have to become mindful of themselves, separate from the doctor. It’s in their hands to tell the doctor about their health and wellbeing and the doctor’s role to listen. The doctor serves the patient.
(This piece originally appeared on Thrive Global)