I had the good fortune of spending a weekend in Seattle with the inaugural class of thought leaders at the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute (PLMI), an audacious think tank formed by Dr. Jeffrey Bland to turn conventional medicine right on its head. This is nothing new for Dr. Bland, of course, after some 30 years of agitation in the fields of nutritional medicine and his close stewardship of the Institute for Functional Medicine. PLMI, his next big idea, was launched early this year through an unrestricted grant from Metagenics, where Dr. Bland previously served as chief science officer. This was quite a bunch of folks assembled for the occasion—clinicians and researchers, doctors and journalists, academics and consumer advocates, all of us related as “fugitive renegades and rebels” from the status quo, according to Dr. Bland. Hear, hear. The Institute brought together representatives from such names as the Huffington Post and New Hope Natural Media, the United Natural Products Alliance and the American Botanical Council, Beth Israel and Harvard, the Buck Institute and the UltraWellness Center, just to name a few.
So why did we all gather and what might come of our efforts to drive the progress of personalized medicine as a new paradigm for consumer health? That story has yet to be written, but nutrition’s role as a primary therapy is already clear. After absorbing the various presentations and perpectives, it’s quite obvious that leading minds at major schools and hospitals are hungry for smarter approaches to their work. They are actively pushing for studies that incorporate nutrition, not to mention a systems approach with multiple interventions that prompt review boards to wag their fingers in disapproval. Their efforts cut across healthcare, from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to autism spectrum disorder and celiac disease. I heard tell of functional approaches to care, respectful of nutrition and lifestyle, with demonstrable results in these fields. Watch a video of an autistic child begin to get a little better through unconventional care and it becomes crystal clear just how dysfunctional the conventional world order has become.
This is the opportunity for the nutrition industry, and especially the practitioner sales channel that grounds this issue. Somewhere inside the confluence of technologies that allow consumers to become smarter about their health—and practitioners to become smarter about their patients—lies that elusive sweet spot for nutrition. We can figure out how each one of us processes nutrients, and tailor nutrition in response. Personalized medicine carries with it the promise of therapeutic nutrition on a much grander scale than this industry has ever known before. Companies are out there doing this right now, building the apps and formulating the products in preparation for the demand to come.
To quote Wendell Berry from his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, “By now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honorable and necessary motive.” Perhaps this speaks to my primary contribution to the discussion thus far. Personalized medicine must be personal, not only in practice but in spirit and message. It must highlight and advocate for the individual, in all her imperfect glory. Medicine needs this kind of humility. It’s okay for medicine to operate within uncertainty, without one-to-one causality. It’s okay to cede control, empower people with their own health data, and let them ask the questions. I’ll bet they come up with silly notions we’ve never dreamed of as a passive collective. PLMI is there to ask those same questions and carve paths through the systems around us—whether inside the clinic or on our screens—that begin to make medicine better. Stay tuned.