A staggering number of health problems are in some way tied to poor lifestyle choices, and a new program at St. John’s Medical Center hopes to combat them while lowering the amount of medicine patients take and procedures they undergo.

Wellness Program Director Julia Heemstra briefed the hospital’s board of trustees Thursday on a lifestyle medicine program being developed in her department.

“We investigated cutting edge treatment around the nation,” she told the board. “Lifestyle medicine is the most cutting edge.”

The philosophy behind lifestyle medicine is simple: People make choices in their everyday lives that eventually affect their long-term health. It’s not a completely novel idea. That smoking causes lung problems or eating too much sugar has a hand in causing Type II diabetes has been known for a while, but the concept of treating a patient’s entire self as a method of combating specific diseases is relatively new in medicine.

The American College of Lifestyle Medicine, formed in 2004, is a professional group that certifies lifestyle medicine programs. It defines the treatment as “the use of a whole food, plant-predominant dietary lifestyle, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances and positive social connection as a primary therapeutic modality for treatment and reversal of chronic disease.”

By focusing on treating chronic diseases without medication, providers have the chance to lower health care costs. The lifestyle medicine group says that 86% of all health care dollars are spent on treating chronic conditions, with 80% of that spending being related to poor lifestyle choices. Since health care equals 18% of the overall U.S. economy that represents a large potential for savings.

Not all chronic conditions can be reversed or significantly reduced by lifestyle medicine, but it can have outsized effects for patients with diabetes. In her presentation, Heemstra cited diabetic patients who were able to cease their insulin after making and sticking to a series of lifestyle changes.

St. John’s is still in the midst of creating the program, so hospital administrators weren’t able to provide detail on what patients might experience. Heemstra told the board that Dr. Marc Domsky, a vegan anesthesiologist who is the hospital’s chief of staff, will be the lifestyle medicine program’s medical director.

CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre alluded that St. John’s wouldn’t be making any radical shifts in offerings.

“We’re not creating a new department,” he told the board. “It’ll be an umbrella for what we already have.”

Whatever the program includes, whether it be healthy eating, avoidance of alcohol, exercise regimens or any other manner of lifestyle alterations, it will need to include a way to encourage patients to stick with their lifestyle changes, which don’t come easy.

“The main problem in convincing people of the importance of lifestyle medicine is the difficulty of motivating patients to change their lifestyles,” says a 2013 article in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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