Nonprofit InspireHealth leads with integrated cancer care
Hal Gunn admits that he went into medical school with idealistic notions. The CEO and cofounder of InspireHealth, a Vancouver-based integrated cancer-care centre that’s expanding throughout B.C., says he expected to learn about well-being. That was hardly the case.
“I’d gone into med school somewhat naively,” Gunn tells the Georgia Straight. “I learned a lot of amazing things about the treatment of illness, but I didn’t learn about health and healing. We currently don’t have a health-care system. We have an illness-treatment system.”
Having taken up meditation in his late teens, Gunn was personally aware of the powerful connection between mind and body. He was determined to integrate that concept into his own practice. Fortuitously, one of his professors at UBC was Dr. Roger Rogers, himself a proponent of preventive health. Together, Rogers and Gunn founded InspireHealth in 1997.
Formerly known as the Centre for Integrated Healing, the nonprofit organization incorporates evidence-based natural health therapies into conventional cancer treatment. Under Gunn’s leadership, the centre is a global leader in integrative health care. Its doctors are the only ones in Canada to be publicly funded to provide integrated cancer care. The provincial government also recently awarded funding to the centre to cover the costs of nutritionists, exercise therapists, counsellors, and nurse practitioners, all of whose services are free to cancer patients at InspireHealth. (No referral is needed.)
Simply put, integrated care encourages patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation to be proactive about their health by adopting lifestyle habits such as healthy eating, exercise, stress reduction, and emotional and social support. Central to InspireHealth’s philosophy is patient empowerment. People are encouraged to play an active part in their own treatment plan, to explore all of their options so they can make informed decisions about their care.
“Mind, body, and spirit: they’re a unity, and they all play a role in integrated care,” Gunn says. “We want to transform the anxiety and the fear that naturally accompany a cancer diagnosis into inspired action to help people support themselves.”
The False Creek–based InspireHealth now has locations in Victoria and Kelowna and will soon be opening branches in Prince George and Abbotsford. It will also operate a virtual centre in Vancouver to serve rural and remote parts of the province. When acupuncture is given to complement chemotherapy or radiation, it, too, is covered by the provincial medical-services plan. Patients also have access to support groups and ongoing free classes in subjects such as cooking, yoga, and shiatsu.
Interest in the centre’s holistic approach to cancer care has come from doctors across the country looking to start up something similar in their own regions. Even Prince Charles is interested. He visited InspireHealth during his 2009 Canadian tour. A firm believer in holistic care, he developed the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, which promotes the union of healthy lifestyle choices—such as eating nutritiously, doing meaningful work, and getting out into nature—with conventional medical treatments.
Gunn sees holistic care as becoming more mainstream, and not just for cancer treatment. “There’s really a wonderful shift that’s occurring right now,” he says. “Patients are embracing integrated care, and I think the medical world is too. There’s the growing body of research showing the value of supportive health and patient empowerment. People themselves are learning about these ideas, and as more physicians engage in these ways in their own lives, they add that personal perspective to their work. The future of medicine really is integrated care. Engaging patients in their health in concert with conventional treatment together is what optimal care is.”
Evidence increasingly supports claims that natural approaches to health can decrease the risk of cancer recurrence, increase rates of survival, and help patients cope with the physical toll of mainstream therapies. In collaboration with the B.C. Cancer Agency, InspireHealth will be participating in a new study to assess the impact of its services on patient outcomes. The $1-million, three-year randomized control trial is being funded by the Lotte & John Hecht Memorial Foundation and will be conducted by the Samueli Institute, an Alexandria, Virginia–based nonprofit research organization, beginning early next year.
If the results reflect what Gunn sees in his daily practice, it could be huge step forward for integrated care.
“If we’re able to demonstrate that InspireHealth’s programs lead to improved quality of life and life extension, then it’s likely more programs will be funded across Canada,” Gunn says. “Quality of life and the experience of the patient and the concept of healing are a challenge to measure with standard quantitative approaches, but the Samueli Institute is playing a leading role in how we can research emotional and spiritual and qualitative aspects of care. There’s a growing recognition that supporting our health can play as important, or even greater, a role as in the treatment of illness.”
InspireHealth’s team of health professionals doesn’t replace people’s own doctors and oncologists but works with them. Gunn acknowledges that B.C. has some of the best cancer-treatment programs in the world and that surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are crucial when it comes to conquering cancer. But such approaches do nothing to address underlying symptoms, prevent disease, or nurture spiritual well-being.
A business case can be made for the shift to a holistic health-care system. In 2009 alone nationwide, there were 171,000 new cases of cancer and 75,000 deaths from the disease, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the cost of drugs to treat people with cancer can reach $50,000 per treatment course, on top of the expenses associated with hospital visits.
“There’s a financial crisis in the health-care system,” Gunn says. “It’s not sustainable. A true healing system addresses the underlying cause of illness, not just the symptoms.”
Integrated care continues to play a role in overall wellness even when a case of cancer is terminal. It can help people accept their situation and enable them to carry on with dignity and inner peace.
And a holistic approach is a way to well-being that benefits everyone, not just cancer patients, asserts Gunn, who meditates and does yoga daily in addition to being an avid cyclist, dancer, and Grouse Grinder.
“We can all learn to take better care of ourselves, to balance mind, body, and soul,” he says. “I continue to learn every day.”