When I began practicing integrative healthcare back in the ’90s, many of the tests, techniques, and therapies I used with patients were still referred to as “alternative medicine,” and mainly appealed to people who had run out of other options. Nowadays (and thousands of patients later, for me) a holistic approach has become not only acceptable, but desirable to the general public, serving as a first-line healthcare strategy for many, and blossoming into an industry worth nearly $200 billion.
Contrary to what some may think, it hasn’t happened through clever marketing or sneaky business tactics. Integrative medicine is where it is today because practitioners and researchers in the field have embraced three simple words that you’ll hardly ever hear from conventional doctors:
We. Don’t. Know.
Wait, really? Who would want a doctor who says they don’t know? Shouldn’t they know everything? No. They shouldn’t, don’t, and can’t. In fact, that’s a big part of why healthcare today has failed people around the world who are facing chronic illness and pain.
The biomedical model of illness has dominated nearly all forms of healthcare — at least in developed, Western countries — for the past hundred or more years. What is it? It’s a view of health which makes the assumption that all illness has an underlying cause that is biological in nature. In other words, in its efforts to determine what can or does make a person sick, it fails to account for social, psychological, or environmental factors.
The biomedical model is certainly relevant when it comes to plenty of illnesses. It intuitively makes sense and is well-supported by a lot of what research has established about biology in general. However, there’s also plenty of evidence that the model paints an incomplete picture of human health and wellness.
Strict adherence to the biomedical model is what has driven many patients to practices like my own. Doctors unwilling to consider certain theories or treatment methods, especially when more conventional ones have failed, do their patients a disservice.
Integrative practitioners take a directly opposite approach. While we fully embrace the wonders and successes of modern medicine, we also recognize that there is a wealth of traditions, rituals, and ideas present in cultures around the world which have aided in the prevention and cure of disease for thousands of years.
When it comes to diagnosing and treating a patient for whom conventional medicine has failed, we start with an open mind. The benefit of saying “I don’t know” isn’t to wallow in ignorance — it’s the logical, necessary precursor to the crucial next step: “Let’s find out.”
A willingness to admit that you don’t know something is associated with a trait that psychologists and social scientists call “intellectual humility.” Ironically, having more intellectual humility actually correlates with possessing superior general knowledge. Maybe that’s because acquiring knowledge means you first have to admit that there’s something to learn.
Whatever the case, intellectual humility has important implications on both the social and individual level. In terms of society as a whole, the more that professionals — from doctors to scientists to politicians — can admit that they don’t have all the answers or have made costly errors in the past, we all benefit collectively from that, and from the inevitably quicker progress that follows.
Failing to admit when we’re wrong, on the other hand, can lead to years spent on the wrong intellectual, personal, or spiritual path. Being overly proud or self-confident can damage our relationships, push away our colleagues and employers, and generally limit our potential for success. Instead, we can attract people and success through building self-awareness and embracing our humble side.
With that in mind, even if you think you might be right — even if you’re pretty sure you’re right — it’s never a bad idea to start off with “I don’t know.” Not only does “Let’s find out” easily lead to a sense of rapport, it contributes to the kind of mindset that will allow you to best solve problems — all while making you look good in the process.