Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MPH, MD, PhD - USA
Public Servants, Mental Gaps, and Pink Elephants: Helping the Patient to See
Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MPH, MD, PhD
dividing her time between Manhattan and Benaras. Since 2002, she serves as Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. She has recently completed a PhD in Ayurvedic chemistry, pharmaceutics, and pharmacology (Rasa Shastra & Bhaisajya Kalpana) from Banaras Hindu University, focusing on polyherbal formulations for diabetes. She was recently awarded as a Fulbright Specialist 2018-2022 in Global Public Health specializing in Integrative Medicine.
She is a Harvard-trained physician-educator, working for 20 years to bridge indigenous medical systems with mainstream biomedicine. Her formal training includes a B.A. (University of Pennsylvania) in liberal arts focusing on neuroscience, a M.A. (Columbia University) in Pharmacology with 5 years of PhD work in neural development, an M.P.H. (Harvard University) in International Health, a M.D. (Rush University of Chicago) doctorate in medicine, formal residency training in urban family medicine (Columbia University) and in preventive medicine (Mount Sinai, NY), a course in integrative nutrition at Teachers College-Columbia University and a PhD (Banaras Hindu University) in Ayurvedic chemistry, pharmaceutics, and pharmacology (Rasa Shastra & Bhaisajya Kalpana), specializing in the scientific basis for polyherbal and metallo-mineral formulations.
She also has formal training in holistic health counseling, yoga, Ayurveda, energywork, mindbody medicine, homeopathy, and aromatherapy. Bhaswati’s holistic training comes through numerous formal courses and apprenticeship format still practiced by traditional healers in Tibet, India, China, Nepal, Brazil, Nigeria, El Salvador, and South Africa. During her 2013-2014 Fulbright award, she studied herbomineral formulations called 2013-2014 Fulbright award, she studied herbomineral formulations called bhasmas and their use in improving vitality, known as Ojas in Sanskrit.
She has delivered speeches internationally, including a talk on World AIDS Day at the United Nations for amFAR, retreats and workshops focusing on medicinal plants, and technical lectures on herbal medicines around the world. Selected in the list of 2014 Top 50 Thinkers of India by MTC Global, she is known for her well-informed views on public health, biodiversity, Ayurveda and topics related to indigenous medical systems. She has consulted on projects for several beauty and cosmetics companies, including Emami/Zandu, TulsiRose, L’Oreal, Reebok and Unilever. A documentary film on her work, Healers: Journey into Ayurveda is shown on The Discovery Channel. Her first book Everyday Ayurveda is a national bestseller published by Penguin Random House in 2015.
Contribution to the Videocongress on 20 June 2020:
Transcript of the Contribution:
Thank you very much. I am so privileged to be here among each of you, and I have completely enjoyed and felt blessed by the heavens that I get to meet each of you today. And then, we have a very long coffee break, for one year, in which we get to know each other before we actually meet in person in Praha next year.
This ability to bring all of us together – those of us who are interested in this effort of complementary alternative, traditional, complementary, integrative, holistic medicines – represents so many different wars and battles that we have waged against people who do not believe in our sciences or in our arts. It also represents many people from the mainstream, who have got all the credentials of modern science, but who have turned away from some of that, because they realized that the things that they were trained in, in modern medicine weren‘t giving the level of healing to their patients that they wanted. They wanted to expand the options. And the bully – the terrorist of ‘positivism’ or of ‘evidence-based medicine’ or whichever term it was – was setting rules that made all of us feel that we are alternative or not acceptable or not mainstream. Some of us have felt that more than others.
I live in three places in the world during the year and I‘m very familiar with them. One is in Paris, France, one is in India where I have one home in Udupi in the south and one in Banaras, one of the oldest Asian cities further north. My third home is in New York in Manhattan, where I serve as an assistant professor at Cornell Medical College. I have my main ‘medical practice’ as a mainstream medical doctor there. During these last six months, the world has been turned. Some people think it‘s upside down, some people think it‘s been traumatised, some people see it in a very negative way. But it‘s also very positive, in that walls have literally been broken down, while other bizarre walls have been put up. That gives those of us, who are trying to move towards the acceptance of a new kind of paradigm, the opportunity to take that initiative. It‘s allowing people who have never had the opportunity to be recognized as an important part of the healthcare system, to actually be recognized.
I‘m going to move back and forth between my experiences in these countries that I‘ve mentioned and in this team that I‘m talking of. In the last few months or last few years, several things have happened. I‘m in India right now, so I‘ll start with India. India is unique because it has eight legal medical systems. In the middle of March, Ayurveda, which is one of the eight legal medical systems in India, was considered to be illegal and there was no place for any Ayurvedic physician, who was a legally licensed physician, to have any part in treating anyone with Covid. It was put very strongly. In the middle of March (actually towards the end of March), there was an article in one of the largest newspapers called ‘Beware of Quackery’. There was a huge outcry from these healers saying: ‘Why are you calling us quacks? We are not alternative medicine. There are all these systems of healing. By the way, if you are calling us quacks, then what are you? The basis of your medicine is evidence-based medicine, you mean the mainstream (which were the only doctors allowed to practice), and your medicine isn‘t working. Whether it‘s hydroxychloroquine or the ventilators, it‘s not working. How can you tell us that we are quacks when what you‘re doing isn‘t working?’ No one from the government or from any of the large associations wrote a rebuttal to that, but everyone behind the scenes was criticizing.
Meanwhile, Ayurveda was illegal – and I was among a group of Ayurvedic practitioners. One morning I got up and I felt very incensed and passionate, just as all of you are. I actually wrote an article about it and it was published. Two days later, the prime minister met with 25 people from the complementary medicine fields and three days later, all of a sudden, Ayurveda was allowed to be practiced; people were allowed to use it for prevention, and then the ball started rolling. Now there are clinical studies that have shown that Ayurvedic herbs, interventions, marma points and various modalities are working. This evidence is being gathered. That movement was not even imaginable for most of the homeopaths, Ayurvedic doctors, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa (which is Tibetan medicine). It wasn‘t even possible four months ago.
In addition, there are many people who are in the mainstream, my friends, doctors at my hospital – the New York Presbyterian Hospital – where we have a secret chat group on WhatsApp, and these doctors of mainstream medicine were sharing, confidentially, that they had no idea what to do. They were being invited by pharmaceutical companies to try anything that worked, because it was an open window and there was nothing illegal; you could use HIV medicines and you could use all kinds of things that didn‘t work for anything else and just try it. See if you can get some data. They felt that it was unethical. In addition, there was a lot of chatting going on among this group of doctors, who felt incredibly burdened ethically, because they knew (as one guy wrote): ‘When we put someone on a ventilator, 80 percent of the time they are going to die. When we tell them that we’re trying to help their lungs breathe, we actually know we’re giving them a death sentence.’ So, when they think they’ve been chosen to get a ventilator, they feel lucky, but they‘re actually not lucky. I‘m sharing these stories because the modern medicine doctors that I see today - whether it’s recently trained and wanted to become a doctor so that they could help people, or people that have been in the business of modern medicine and have all the power and the laws behind them - many of them are very frustrated.
I am a MD licensed doctor (you know, all those bells and whistles in New York), but took a very bold step to force the US government and the government of India to observe that Ayurveda could be a medical system. I got a Fulbright to go to India and study Ayurveda as an actual legal medical doctor studying it. I also did a PhD in Ayurveda, which turned a certain amount of heads among the modern medical people.
Waiting for a change
There has been a huge group of modern medical doctors who come to me in New York or in America saying: ‘I don‘t believe in our medicine but I‘m trapped, I am the chairman of Cardiology, and I don‘t know how to get out of this because I have a mortgage, because I have a car.’ They are waiting for people like Natalia with her evidence and for people like Tomas, who is creating this initiative. They are waiting for people to change the policy, so that it‘s ‘legal’ for them to practice. In India, I have friends who are mainstream medical doctors and who are forbidden by law to do something called crosspathy. When you practice one form of medicine (either homeopathy or allopathy or some pathy) and you are not allowed to practice another. If you‘re a mainstream medical doctor and you know that arnica would be very good for pain, you can‘t prescribe it because you are a medical doctor who can only prescribe pharmaceuticals. You can‘t prescribe or recommend Ayurvedic medicines. I think you know many such scenarios. Maybe you have them in your own countries, maybe you don‘t.
This creates a very interesting possibility for us right now, because those doctors in India would love to practice TCIM or CAM or integrative medicine but they cannot. And those doctors in America who are spread, they‘re part of the mainstream. I have a whole group of friends, people who are working so hard spending their lives, their time, people like Madan who goes out of his way to really bring science into complementary medicine forums, so that people can think more openly. Just saying you‘re ‘a genome biologist’ sounds ‘okay, he‘s hardcore’ he really understands science. We are all using our credentials. This forum is a place for all of us to educated ourselves. I am so thrilled that, even though I‘ve been studying complementary medicine, I was learning new things. I was learning about new places I can go, more things I can meet. I have a few things to offer. I hope that if this is all old for you that you will forgive me because many of you know so much. But maybe it will at least get you to think about what‘s possible in your country.
One thing is that the children today who are growing up, as our children, are enjoying complementary medicine because we believe in it. Within five years or ten years, they‘re going to be the adults. I meet 20-25-year-old medical students who say: ‘I don‘t believe any of this education that they‘re giving us, because most of it just doesn‘t even incorporate the complementary medicine that I know. I‘m just getting the degree, so that I can be official.’ They are the ones who are going to be the champions changing the laws. We see that this is happening in certain places. There are transformations happening regularly. Health Canada now has a huge section for doctors of natural medicine who are trained in their countries and come to Canada to get recognized and registered. In the US last week, a Yoga University opened and is going to offer courses. There is a reading of the Sanskrit text, which is called the Ashtanga Hridayam, in an actual bona fide University of the United States, Southern California University. That course is going to begin in a couple of months. You would just never have seen that before. There are young people who are saying: ‘Into OUR world, we are going to bring in what you old people didn’t’ (old people meaning those of us over 35). In America there are 11 states that have health freedom laws that allow us to practice Ayurveda, homeopathy and many CAM modalities in a way that is not illegal. There are still many barriers, but it is possible for those people to go to Rhode Island or Maine or California or Washington and practice. Indeed, that‘s where you see a lot of the healing modality practitioners.
What is disturbing… Well, let me give a couple of other examples first. There‘s also a registry right now that‘s looking at how complementary medicine practitioners are treating Covid patients. That‘s at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland. They have gathered a whole bunch of people together to have a registry for people to fill in, and that data is being compiled. They have hundreds and hundreds of people who have written about what they‘re doing, and that‘s one way of compiling evidence. The difficult part, right now, is that many people are not educated. I‘m in India, where many people still give presentations about Ayurveda and say, ‘Here‘s what‘s happening in America. No one practices complimentary medicine the way we do. No one is able to practice Ayurveda.’ When they make these statements, I don‘t want to say they‘re wrong, but they‘re outdated.
What I see as one of our tasks over this ‘coffee break’ next year, is to educate everyone, whether we are publishers of magazines as my good friend John Weeks is, or whether we‘re sitting among policymakers as Mr. Amarjeet or Dr. Madan, or whether we have access to people who tell us or speak at a conference and they don‘t have the latest facts. It‘s up to us to inform them and help them to learn more. It shouldn‘t just be a small elite group people that know about complementary medicine because they‘re the chosen ones that have the jobs that enable them to learn about it. It should be all of us. Complementary medicine belongs to the people. As Tomas said, it‘s there to heal everyone. So, everyone has a role if we want to heal. I think most people who are in health or health care want to heal.
There are a few people who actually don‘t want to heal, and I‘ve met them too. They are the people that got into this business to make money. They want to make money. They are going to use their money to make sure that they will make money and keep the laws supporting them. We need to think about compassionate open-hearted ways, frankly, to wage war against them. When I meet people who are in it for their own personal vision, I say to them: ‘If you ever get sick, don‘t come to me for Ayurveda because I‘m just so incensed by your lack of compassion for healing medicine.’
I think Dr. Madan talked about how we‘ve institutionalized disease care and we have misnomered that as healthcare. I see that in India as well, because the modern medical system takes up about ninety-seven percent of the budget and yet the three percent of the budget… The money doesn‘t mean anything in India because the culture of India existed before there was money. Sixty percent of the people use traditional medicines – traditional meaning the ancient medicines – and, frankly, they don‘t need to go buy pills. I have invested in a hospital here: our backyard is our pharmacy. We go back here and we pick the leaves. We make the medicines right here in our pharmacy and we apply them to our patients. We don‘t need that three percent of the budget.
What we do need is evidence. We’re giving a talk on Nadi Pariksha – the pulse diagnosis. I was so happy to see Dr. Moser‘s evidence. One of the things we can do for each other is not only share this evidence, but create forums at the conference next year where we challenge each other. Not to give one-on-one talks but to take a common question and ask five or six people: ‘How do you deal with this question? How did you solve this? What‘s the evidence for this?’ I want to learn what the evidence is because that‘s how we‘re going to convince the people who are not believers. I would love to have training sessions there, so that all of us can understand energy work if we‘ve never felt it, or so that we can understand the different manual therapies. Some people have never heard of naprapathy. They‘ve heard of chiropractic or osteopathy but they don‘t know about varma therapy or marma therapy. These are all healing modalities. All of us have the opportunity and the privilege to be educated by each other. That transformation is going on right now. Though I also felt quite frustrated as I was listening about the fear that we were talking about earlier (I think it was Carol Ann that was talking about that) and I was thinking about how many people that fear. But we can look at this as an opportunity for transformation and see that all of us have homework to do.
We all need to know everything on that TCIM database that Natalia talked about. We all need to go and read from the journals and figure out how we can publish in the journals to create evidence. We all need to help Tomas gather more, so that this huge compendium he has grows. By the way, if you haven‘t looked through it, it‘ll take you about four or five hours, but take some time to go through it, it‘s an amazing compendium so far. It was already outdated on the day that it was bound. Take time to get educated. I think it‘s easy to say: ‘This is what I offer’, but if we all become students and we continue to learn from each other, I think that we are going to create an umbrella, a web that is so powerful because it is based in the heart, in the hridaya, in healing. Hridaya is the Sanskrit word for that which beats, which gives and takes and exchanges, and which is the seat of our conscience, our thinking mind and our feeling mind. We constantly mistranslate this word as heart, but the hridaya relates to a function of ourselves and binds us to each other.
I don‘t know if anything I‘ve said has helped you or has made you think about anything new or useful. But for the last thirty years, I have been invested in trying to turn things around. Trying to be a warrior but also be a gentle angel, by holding a knife or a sword sometimes to break down walls, but also to make sure that that sword doesn‘t hurt other people. Sometimes, I‘m very sharp with my words. Sometimes, I have to be very gentle when I touch patients who are suffering. I worked in the Office of Alternative Medicine when it was called the Office of Non-Conventional Therapies – the logo was a witch broom – at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. I worked there in 1992. I have watched America grow, I‘ve watched DSHEA, which is our main law, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, I‘ve watched how that has protected many of the supplements and medical - I won‘t say medical, I‘ll say the non-medical - therapies or the complementary therapies, and I‘ve watched health policy.
I am sure that if all of us find the evidence that the others in this group have been working on and we air it, there will be a tipping point. The tipping point is where nothing‘s changing, nothing, nothing, and then suddenly everything changes. I think that we can create that. We can be witness to it. We can hold hands virtually across the screens, which technology is giving us today until we meet next year. By the time we meet next year, the vision of Tomas and of Carol and of Miloslava and Natalia and Madan and all the others who I’m not naming can come together. I want to be a servant in this effort. I wish that if there‘s anything that I‘ve said that it‘s helped you and you want to reach out to me, that you will. I have a few skill sets thanks to my background in research, and in biomedicine, in pharmacology, and neuroscience. I understand drugs. I have been practicing clinical medicine for thirty… - a few years I would say - and because I move back and forth between Europe, India and America, I am constantly helping people who are working in complementary medicine to find out what they don‘t know and to find solutions for things that they didn‘t even know already existed. I hope that this has been useful for you and thank you for listening. Namaste.