Top Doc Q&A: Donald Levy

He is the medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine, a clinic that combines modern and alternative medicines.

This post is part of our Top Docs Q&A series where we ask a physician who was selected as one of our Top Docs questions about their field, life as a doctor, and practicing in the Greater Boston area. 

Name: Donald Levy

Hospital affiliation: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Title: Medical Director of the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School

Field: Internal Medicine

Specialty: Integrative Medicine

Donald Levy is the medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an integrative medicine specialist. Integrative medicine is a practice that combines modern medicine with alternative techniques such as yoga, dietary herbs and supplements, acupuncture, massage, tai chi, chiropractic.

Why did you first choose internal medicine?

I liked the generalness, and that everyone in the waiting room doesn’t have the exact same diagnosis. I also like knowing a little bit of a lot of things, and I like figuring out the next steps for someone when they are sick. I also love that primary care doctors are really interested in the whole person.

How did you become interested in integrative medicine? 

I started noticing that many people were doing better with some alternative treatments then what I had to offer with standard Western medicine. Certain patients would tell me that they felt better from yoga, seeing chiropractors, or getting massages. So I found myself getting my foot in both worlds [of alternative and traditional medicine]. Now, as the medical director of the Osher Clinical Center, I do a lot of consultant work. That means if you have headaches, and you don’t want to take a pill for the next 40 years, you could come to me for an integrative medical approach, and I just might prescribe yoga.

How has integrative medicine changed in the last 15 years that you’ve been involved in the field?

When I first started most doctors considered integrative medicine some kind of voodoo, even though some of these approaches have been used for centuries. However, over the last 15 or so years there has been more scientific interest in studying these types of approaches. Now when I write a recommendation in a patient’s chart, I add in a footnote of a study that scientifically proves why whatever I’ve suggested is worth giving a try. I wish there were enough studies out there so that integrative medicines could became more a part of mainstream medicine, but that’s coming along slower.

What are the latest advancements happening in integrative medicine?

I would say that in almost every branch of medicine there have been some promising and interesting findings that involve integrative medicine. I love some of the studies lately on integrative medicines helping people get through their chemotherapy or radiation. Some patients of mine have said that they’ve met other chemo patients who feel sick most of the time. Yet my patients say they’ve been out playing with their grandchildren, and they think it’s because of the integrative approaches they’ve tried. So integrative medicine isn’t going to cure their cancer but it sure is helping make their life more bearable during treatment.

What are your hopes for the future of integrative medicine?  

My hope is that more attention is paid to it, especially as we are now trying to better control health costs and also center health care not just on disease control but also total health. A lot of integrative medicine modalities try to help the patients nurture themselves towards better health and try to prevent illness, and I think that’s part of the future of medicine.

What’s your favorite part of practicing in Boston?

Typically, the public tends to accept integrative medicine very well, but for doctors, especially in Boston, it’s a longer journey. I don’t mind that though, because doctors should be skeptical. I like the challenge of bringing these alternative approaches to the table in a place where they are not so quickly accepted. There are some places where these techniques are not looked at skeptically enough.

How does the Osher Clinical Center approach integrative medicine in the most scientific and savvy way possible?

Having a clinic in a major, internationally well-known teaching hospital is number one. Also we’ve made ourselves very transparent in what we are doing so that you can make your own judgments on whether it works or not. We are also doing research here at the clinic. Right now we are in the middle of a 5-year NIH sponsored study to see if our approach to chronic low back pain is better then the usual care people get for it. Also, now well over half of our patients are coming from referrals of other physicians. The fact that other doctors respect us enough to send their patients over here is incredibly gratifying.

How can a person seek out dietary herbs and supplements in a smart and safe way instead of just going with what’s been hyped up?  

My favorite question to ask my patients is, “what did Dr. Google say,” because now-a-days people always find these sort of remedies online. I do my research every day about these various products coming out, and some of them I think are really interesting, but most of them are total hype. We don’t have an FDA for supplements that tell us which brands are high quality and safe, so I have done my research and I have a list of the top companies that make really high quality supplements that are equivalent to pharmaceuticals.

What are some of the advantages of trying integrative medicine?

There’s something about these therapies that plug into your bodies natural ability to heal, so these methods tend to empower people to take responsibility for their own health. Though these methods look more expensive because you have to pay out of pocket, patients then realize that they don’t need to pay anything additional down the road, because learning something like tai chi is not an ongoing medication.

On April 22, you’re hosting a seminar about “changing our brains,” what does this mean?

It’s essentially about a term called epigenetics, which is the science that says you can turn switches on and off in your DNA. Although your DNA might suggest you are likely to get a specific disease, by making healthy lifestyle choices you can prevent that disease gene from ever turning on. For example, they do studies of twins with the exact same DNA markers for the possibility of developing a type of cancer. One twin might have exercised regularly or had certain nutrients in his/her diet, and that twin doesn’t get the cancer but the other one does. So I tell people that our DNA is not our destiny, and to me that’s more exciting then getting a print out of the terrible things that could happen. I’d rather learn about what I can do to prevent them.