Interview with Dr Elizabeth Thompson

The National Centre for Integrative Medicine (NCIM) would not exist without the dedication and devotion of its CEO and Holistic Doctor, Dr Elizabeth Thompson. Here she discusses her passion for healthcare and wellbeing, and sets out how NCIM is challenging the expectations of what healthcare should be…

What inspired you to go into medicine in the first place?

When I was just seven years old, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be either a nurse or a doctor – it goes that far back! I’ve always had a fascination with the body: how it works, how people work, how they tick. The passion to be in healthcare has just always been there. It’s a vocation and calling, not just a career.

We see the same thing in the healthcare professionals that come to the NCIM to train in our Diploma in Integrative Medicine. They began because of that same calling, but sometimes the pressure of the working environment can confuse and overwhelm that calling. Transforming healthcare to create a better environment for both healthcare professionals and the public is a key part of NCIM’s vision. We want to change people’s mindsets.

What do you mean, change mindsets?

Increasingly, healthcare professionals are struggling to apply simple solutions to complex problems and sometimes protocols don’t match the individual in front of them.

That’s why, at the NCIM, we practice collaborative consulting, rather than imposing a medical intervention. A medical intervention says that as a doctor, I listen to your symptoms, I work out the problem, and I tell you what to do. It doesn’t always take into account everything else that the patient might like to say about their emotional, mental, spiritual and social challenges. With a collaborative consulting approach, it becomes possible to co-create an individualised healthcare plan.

That is a very different model to how most of us experience doctor’s appointments.

Yes it can be, although many healthcare professionals are holistic at heart but are challenged to deliver holistic care in short appointments. We mustn’t lose sight of all the knowledge, experience, and skills that we can use when trying to understand complex problems. If we can balance the mind, the heart and our gut instincts they can come together when we are consulting holistically.

Is that your vision for healthcare in the future?

In part. My vision is one of a wellness model, where people are encouraged to stay well, and have early warning systems for when they are getting out of balance. Included in that wellness model is an emphasis on lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, green spaces, as well as emotional and psychological health. Right now we have a model that exists where you have to be significantly ill before we do anything about it.

Why do you think that it takes us so long to ask for help when we feel unwell?

We’re trained as a nation not to bother a doctor unless it’s serious. I think that people get anxious that we don’t want to take up a doctor’s valuable time unless we are very unwell, which is why the wellness model can be so transformative. When people visit their doctor before serious illness takes hold, that is the point at which we can really support self-care.

Before the intervention model became so dominant, self-care was a natural part the way families cared for each other, with typically a parent acting as the gatekeeper of health and wellbeing. They would know how to manage a virus, or a sprain, how to keep warm, how to fight damp, spotting low spirits before it became serious, knowing the intrinsic powers of certain herbs and foods. The wise woman of the village was also often an important way that we connected back into nature.

There’s a greater amount of conversation recently about mental health and wellbeing, but there doesn’t seem to be many practical changes. Why do you think that is?

There are many people pushing for a reform in the way we support mental health, and an Integrative Medicine model connecting people to a diverse range of approaches is already being rolled out in many mental health arenas. I think though that many would agree that such an important area of healthcare needs appropriate resources.

A growing openness to discuss, and an awareness of mental health problems across a wide age range, is forcing us to look again at the need for holistic models that value mental and emotional symptoms as important as physical symptoms. With a holistic model comes again the need for diverse approaches. We know for example that the green care movement is having a positive impact in the area of mental health, as is mindfulness.

You’ve recently led the change of Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine to National Centre for Integrative Medicine (NCIM). Why?

We have always thought nationally with our patient services and our professional training, and we actually picked the name Portland because, at that time, we were based in Portland Square.

It’s actually created quite a bit of confusion, with some people thinking that we’re in the USA! There’s been a growing sense that our name should reflect the national and international activities that we are involved in, and we aren’t aware of any centre in the UK that is doing what we do, developing a model of wellness for both patients and professionals.

Our change of name reflects that we are the leading centre for Integrative Medicine in the UK, and we’re driven to model positive transformation in both training and patient services.

And lastly, what are you most excited about now that the NCIM has been renamed?

I am excited about becoming more visible, communicating what it is we’re doing, and talking to like-minded individuals who also want to see this change in healthcare. Now that people realise that we are already acting on a national stage, more people can connect to us and will be able to grow professional networks that will accelerate the changes. Just one person and one idea that is shared by many can be strengthened through connections, and that is something truly exciting.