Brown Rice & Bee Stings: Using the Technology You Have

Do you ever think about all the “modern miracles” our society takes for granted in the 21st century? We casually live every day in our grandparents’ wildest dreams of the future. That’s why we decided to dedicate this issue of Connection to science and technology and how it permeates our lives – with benefits and challenges – playing a key role in our health, fitness, nutrition and everyday living. With this theme in mind, Canyon Ranch Founder Mel Zuckerman chose to yield his usual column space to Corporate Medical Director Mark Liponis, MD, who has in-depth understanding of and experience with medical technology.

As it turns out, Dr. Liponis feels his experiences practicing medicine without the latest tools have also helped him become a better doctor. In a previous Connection article, Dr. Liponis described his work on a medical mission to Laos. He and his wife, Siobhan McNally, MD, have long helped people in less developed countries, sharing medical expertise and the healthy living philosophy. Here he explains how a lack of technological resources can help hone fundamental skills and encourage creative problem-solving – all of which he can apply back home in conjunction with the latest and greatest equipment.

What is it like to practice medicine without the medical technology you have access to at home?
We miss it! We’re spoiled by immediate feedback and test results. In foreign countries, we often don’t have the diagnostic and therapeutic tools we depend on at home. We have to draw on all our training and experience and be innovative. A patient’s history gives us eighty percent of the information we need, so we start with a good intake interview and a good interpreter. It’s a no-tech, extremely important process.

How do you diagnose problems with fewer tools?
Simple observation can sometimes be enough. With dental health, for instance, we check the gums for nutritional depletion, bleeding, decay. If your teeth are no good, you can’t chew on nutritious food. We also check growth and weight charts for children. We can encourage natural interventions including better nutrition to solve problems.

Years ago, my wife and I saw patients in Jamaica. We couldn’t get blood tests and labs, but we were able to diagnose anemia by pulling down the lower eyelid. If the color was pale instead of pink, we knew it was anemia, usually caused by parasites in that area. We’d know to treat them for both.

What do you do when modern treatments aren’t available?
We look for alternatives. In Laos, we treated people suffering from beriberi, which is actually common there and caused by vitamin B1 deficiency. By getting them to switch from their customary white rice to brown rice, which was readily available, they got the vitamins they needed. At Canyon Ranch, we recommend nutritional supplements for long-term good health – in Laos, we saw this vitamin work in just days!

Another time we saw a woman with rheumatoid arthritis. Modern anti-inflammatories and other meds were not available, but bee stings are a proven treatment. We went to the beekeeper, grabbed a bee with tweezers, and the patient got her treatment.

When you can only take a few things with you, what equipment do you pack first?
I won’t go anywhere without my stethoscope. Some doctors actually think the stethoscope is dead because of the other amazing diagnostic tools, like MRIs or other scans. That’s not an option in the places we go. Besides, I can hear so much with my stethoscope – hearts, lungs, arteries, blood pressure and abdominal sounds.

I also take a blood pressure cuff and a simple glucometer to measure blood sugar. Even in a population with virtually no obesity, people get adult-onset diabetes due to poor nutrition or low birth weight.

My other favorite piece of equipment is a portable ultrasound. When someone complains of back pain, it might mean anything from a slipped disc to kidney stones. Ultrasound gives me an instant, real-time look at the organs. It also helps close the language barrier! If you can’t communicate directly, then getting a picture is the next-best thing.

What low-tech things can we all do at home to stay safe and healthy?
Basic first aid is great. And CPR, of course, which is less scary now since the mouth-to-mouth component is no longer taught. I also recommend keeping certain things around the house and taking them with you on vacation, such as aspirin, an antihistamine (Benadryl) and something for vomiting or diarrhea.

What have you learned from practicing lower-tech medicine abroad?
I’ve become a better clinician by working with these patients, figuring things out without the usual aids and collaborating with other professionals. I come back to Canyon Ranch with renewed appreciation for our leading-edge technology and everything we can do to help our guests. We’re so fortunate to have an advanced medical arsenal that we can take for granted!