Northern California Safety-Net Clinic Offers Ayurvedic Treatment to the Underserved
By Andrea Foster, Education Coordinator
It’s hard to deny that we’re in the middle of a health revolution. From movements to improve the quality of the food we eat to the mainstreaming of formerly esoteric health practices, Americans are clamoring for more from their medicine and their medical advisers. And conventional medical clinics are beginning to take notice.
The Forestville Wellness Center in Forestville, California is a safety-net clinic offering Ayurvedic counseling as part of its treatments to underserved patients. Ayurvedic consultations are offered along with other holistic modalities, such as acupuncture, herbalism, qi gong, and yoga. While some of the services have waiting lists, Ayurvedic counseling is actively growing its patient base.
Current patients of the West County Health Centers are eligible to obtain Ayurvedic services through the Forestville Wellness Center. As the region’s safety-net clinic, West County Health Center serves a large number of uninsured and under-insured patients who wouldn’t otherwise be able to receive such services.
Chris Perkowska, an Ayurvedic practitioner and health care provider at the Center, was one of the founding forces that sought to bring Ayurveda to the clinic in 2012 when she began the conversation with a group of volunteers. After discussions with Dr. Connie Earl, Director of Integrative Medicine at the Wellness Center who was already interested in Ayurveda, the volunteer practitioners offered their time. They took their approach from the California School of Herbal Studies that had already set a precedent with their presence at the clinic. The herbal school provides interns to the wellness center and Chris envisioned the center offering the same opportunity to Ayurvedic students.
DeAnna Batdorff, founder of the dhyana Center, had also been a part of the initial discussion, managing the original volunteer program that would provide the Forestville Wellness Center with its Ayurvedic practitioner staff. Ultimately four volunteers affiliated with the dhyana Center, Anne Dale, Betsy Quarles, Dhyana Bohnet and Perkowska, became employees of the Forestville Wellness Center to continue to bring Ayurvedic healing to West County patients.
Dale, Quarles, Bohnet and Perkowska are all graduates of Batdorff’s Ayurvedic Clinical program through the dhyana Center and their approach reflects Batdorff’s primary mission of bringing Ayurvedic healing to all, regardless of income. Her Clinical program provides the foundation for students to become practitioners.
The Forestville Wellness Center practitioners are Ayurvedic consultants, seeing patients during the course of half a day, once per week. One or two practitioners are present at each consultation as well as attend monthly roundtables with staff and Batdorff, who is also an Ayurvedic practitioner, to take a closer look at more complex cases and clinical issues.
Perkowska, in combining various modalities including Ayurveda while treating patients, appreciates the challenge of working with the clinic’s population.
“It’s a very unique clinic setting because patients have chronic diseases and little resources in general and can be on a lot of medication, so it needs a whole different approach,” said Perkowska.
Perkowska added that the practitioners try to meet patients at their level of resources and Ayurvedic understanding. Rather than speak in terms of doshas, practitioners will speak in terms of hot, cold, wet, and dry in the body and what results from imbalances of these conditions, reflecting the approachable philosophy taught at the dhyana Center. She said many patients are referred with insomnia, anxiety, digestive issues, and chronic pain.
“Our approach is to pull way back to the basics – hydration, lymph – so much so that we’re developing classes,” said Perkowska, noting that the demand for education in these basics is prompting the movement toward offering information in the form of group classes.
Natalie Dwyer, Wellness Manager at the Forestville center, agreed that patients at their clinic are benefiting greatly from the addition of these services.
“People feel like they’re gaining more knowledge about how their body works,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer has seen the Ayurvedic practitioners take the knowledge into established groups to add a new perspective. For example, the practitioners gave a presentation to the Wellness Center’s mindful eating group, created to assist patients in making and implementing healthy changes to their diet, by bringing information about the six rasas or tastes found in food and the importance and fun of balancing these in the diet.
“It was very interactive,” Dwyer said. “Chris [Perkowska] and the other practitioners are offering groups on digestion, sleep, anxiety, in a rolling curriculum.” She added patients could access these groups at any point.
Perkowska agreed that digestion, sleep, and anxiety receive a lot of emphasis in the consultations they provide.
“We see a lot of Kapha blocking Vata,” said Perkowska, referring to heavy energy and stagnation within body systems preventing healthier activity.
The dhyana Center provides free self-care passes to bring patients to another resource where they can implement some of the changes a provider may have recommended, as well as learn about educational opportunities to take charge of their own healing.
“We’re not handing out pills, we’re handing out self-care,” Perkowska said, noting that, unlike with medication, self-care takes a greater level of patient responsibility. “The challenge of self-care – if you’re overwhelmed in your life, it’s hard to get there.
And Forestville Wellness Center is one of the first community health centers in a growing movement toward integrative medicine. As one of the frontrunners in the country, among others, they are being watched for the holistic treatments they offer alongside mainstream medical approaches.
Perkowska and other alternative providers of at the Wellness Center work with medical providers, recording recommendations in a patient’s chart, providing additional screening and assessments, communicating with the patient’s primary care provider, and billing for treatment.
“Having integrative health modalities is the direction to go to meet patient’s needs. The administration is totally supportive or else it wouldn’t be there. They see it as a resource. The primary physicians recognize the need for the tools. We’re trying to reach out and educate the whole staff,” said Perkowska. “We’re integrating two health care systems. It’s very legitimate, very upfront. It’s a nice harmony.”
Dwyer said that part of practitioner education efforts is presenting clinical staff with descriptions of ideal patients for Ayurvedic services so that the medical professionals can offer a supportive environment for their patients, referring them to an Ayurvedic practitioner where appropriate. This allows patients the chance to learn about new services they may not have considered, under the approval of a clinician whose opinion they may trust.
“The patients really enjoy it. It’s such a great tool, teaching self-care and different ways to empower yourself. And it opens the door to other modalities,” Dwyer said.