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Considering Whole Person Health as We Develop NCCIH’s Next Strategic Plan

Director’s Page
Helene M. Langevin, M.D.

April 27, 2020

Even as we continue to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are actively planning for the future of NCCIH’s research enterprise. As we launch our year-long effort to develop a new strategic plan that will guide NCCIH’s research over the next 5 years (2021–2025), the chance to strengthen a consideration of “whole person” health with research on multimodal approaches to care has been on my mind. I had the opportunity to launch the discussion of this topic during our recent webinar, and it was a terrific opportunity to elicit input, perspectives, and questions from stakeholders whom we hope will continue to weigh in during our strategic planning process this year. 

As I noted in my webinar presentation, in the current health care system we tend to think about disease one organ system at a time. Even when “comorbid” conditions occur, we mostly treat them separately, sometimes with drugs that interfere with one another. In contrast, when we think of health, we may refer to “heart health” or “brain health,” but in general we tend to think in a more holistic way. 

This makes sense if we think of health and disease not as separate states but as a bidirectional continuum. We know that on the path between health and disease, some of the same behaviors—poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, and poor sleep—can lead to chronic diseases of different organ systems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, degenerative joint disease, and depression. Addressing these behaviors at an early stage can not only prevent multiple diseases but also restore a better overall state of health. We are seeing in real time an example of why this is important in the current pandemic: although COVID-19 is a respiratory infection, it is clear that chronic conditions in other body systems (e.g., diabetes, hypertension) are important factors in its severity and mortality. 

A whole person health framework also provides critical insights and opportunities to expand and build on NCCIH’s current research portfolio on natural products and mind and body approaches. By deepening our scientific understanding of the connections that exist across domains of human health, we can better understand how conditions interrelate, define multimodal interventions that address these problems, and deepen how we support patients through the full continuum of their health experience, including the return to health.
We especially look forward to further discussions of the importance, and challenges, of research on multimodal approaches to care. These can include complementary “whole health systems” as well as integrated complementary and conventional treatments in the context of, for example, cardiac rehabilitation. With 20 years of work to establish rigorous scientific methods in both basic and clinical research, NCCIH is poised to play a leading role in tackling important research questions in this area. As we work to develop our next strategic plan, I’m eager to hear your thoughts and insights on future opportunities for research. We have published a formal Request for Information in the NIH Guide and are sharing it with our listserv subscribers, on the NCCIH website, and through other channels. Through June 30, 2020, we will accept comments through our web form, email, and at virtual town hall meetings.

Please join us in NCCIH’s Strategic Planning process:

Helene M. Langevin, M.D.
Helene M. Langevin, M.D.