Integrative medicine combines the best of all modalities of healing, whether from conventional, alternative, traditional, or complementary medicine.
By integrating multiple perspectives, integrative medicine provides an optimal way to address health, wellness, and disease.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach but rather considers what is best for the whole person, including physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health.
Here are the basic principles of integrative medicine:
- The patient and practitioner are partners in the healing in the healing process.
- Integrative medicine considers all aspects of health and wellness, including the body, mind, emotions, community, environment, and spirit.
- Appropriate therapies are chosen to support the innate healing response.
- Effective therapies that are natural and less invasive are used when possible.
- Good medicine is based on good science. It is inquiry-driven, based on posing questions and scenarios with an open-minded curiosity for new paradigms.
- In addition to treating illness, integrative medicine is “health-focused,” emphasizing the importance of both promoting health and preventing disease.
- Care is individualized for a person, addressing his or her unique situation and needs.
- Any practitioner of integrative medicine should model these principles, committing to self-exploration and self-development.
Integrative medicine is growing in popularity
According to the National Institute of Health, about 30-40% of adults and 12% of children use some kind of integrative medicine.
In fact, Americans spend about $30.2 billion in out-of-pocket expenses on integrative medicine.
Due to these statistics, it is vital for healthcare practitioners to understand both the risks and benefits of complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine.
What are the benefits of integrative medicine?
Integrative medicine uses common sense.
For example, most conventional physicians have very little if any training in nutrition. But, I think most people would agree that nutrition is important for health. So, why isn’t it talked about more? Hopefully, times are changing but not quite fast enough.
What about time-proven remedies from ancient wisdom? Yes! Integrative medicine incorporates those, too. No need to throw out old remedies that have been incredibly useful.
Often, research starts to catch up to them. Take the old remedy of chicken soup for a cold. Well, now we know that the hot broth and aromatic herbs and veggies can ease congestion, reduce inflammation, and boost the immune system.
Modern science also plays a huge role. It’s not an either/or approach. If you’ve broken your leg, then you want to get the x-rays, anesthesia, and surgery available at a hospital with all the supplies, technology, techs, assistants, nurses, and physicians needed to save your leg and your life.
Thinks outside the box
Even more, integrative medicine embraces thinking outside the box. How could we be innovative in medicine if we didn’t consider new possibilities? After all, I’m talking about the art of medicine. Integrative medicine combines science smarts and creativity to come up with a solution just for you.
Weighs potential for benefit vs harm
It’s also important to consider if a treatment is likely to help and unlikely to harm. Weighing both of these is important in any decision-making process. For instance, a simple ginger tea could help with indigestion and is unlikely to cause harm. On the other hand, prescription antacid could relieve indigestion but it is also likely to disrupt the good bacteria in the gut and decrease the breakdown of food. Integrative medicine chooses the most beneficial and least harmful option first.
Supports the body in its natural functions
Integrative medicine also supports the body in its natural functions. In the example above, the herb ginger aids digestion by helping the body release more digestive enzymes. Compare that to prescription antacids which suppresses the production of natural stomach acids. Here, the antacids are more of a “Band-Aid” approach. However, deeper healing can be achieved by working with the body instead of against it.
Power of collaboration
Plus, integrative medicine believes in the power of collaboration. In particular, that means partnering with you as the patient. Your needs, your situation, and your goals are important in the decision-making process. After all, it’s about your health, which means the whole you. Your voice is vital.
Why choose integrative medicine?
Wouldn’t you like your healthcare to…
… be personalized
Integrative medicine recognizes that each person is unique. What works for one person may not work for another. You can’t necessarily rely on protocols. Each plan and recommendation is created for the individual, keeping in mind their particular circumstances and needs.
… address multiple perspectives
It’s not just about the body. There are many factors that influence your health. Has your doctor asked you about them? Your thoughts, emotions, environment, and more can impact your health. Integrative medicine provides ways to address these multiple layers to health.
… empower you to make decisions
You are empowered to help make decisions about your own health. A doctor of integrative medicine takes time to talk to you about your lifestyle. Even small changes can be powerful. Together, you’ll create a plan tailored just for you.
… save you money in the long run
You’ve got one body. Honor it and be grateful for this home. Choosing to eat vegetables and use herbal remedies can be more cost-effective and more beneficial than taking prescription medicines. In doing so, you can also avoid the unwanted effects of medications, such as addiction to pain medicines or the fatigue with statins.
The health-focused approach looks for ways to support health rather than simply suppress symptoms with a Band-Aid prescription. By nourishing the inner health, symptoms can resolve completely (true healing) rather than simply covering them up.
… prevent disease
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Conventional medicine spends little time and effort teaching people how to live healthy lives. Within integrative medicine, prevention of disease is a huge priority. Many illnesses have warning signs, which, if addressed early on, can be reversed and thus disease avoided completely.
What is integrative medicine vs functional, or complementary, or alternative medicine?
Conventional medicine is considered what is currently mainstream.
Non-mainstream practices can be further defined as complementary, alternative, traditional, functional, or integrative medicine:
Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional practices.
Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional practices.
Traditional medicine is used by indigenous societies. However, traditional is also sometimes used to refer to mainstream or conventional medicine. Yes, it can be confusing!
Functional medicine is more specific than integrative medicine. It uses a biologic-based approach and looks at the body as a whole rather than as separate systems. Functional medicine does rely heavily on laboratory analysis and supplements. However, like integrative medicine, functional medicine views lifestyle modifications, health maintenance, and disease prevention as paramount.
Integrative medicine is a broader term that can encompass all of the above. It integrates the best of any modality of medicine including those above, choosing therapies specifically for the patient, taking into account the circumstances and needs of the individual within the physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual context.
Because of the growing popularity of integrative medicine, it is possible that in the future, integrative medicine becomes the mainstream approach to medicine.
What can integrative medicine treat?
An integrative approach can be used to treat any illness. In fact, integrative medicine can often identify imbalances when conventional medicine alone cannot.
For Optimal Health and Wellness:
It’s not just about the absence of disease. Actually, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Have you ever been to the doctor because you don’t feel well but they couldn’t find anything wrong? Well, perhaps looking from various perspectives would help.
In other words, optimal health requires balance in all the layers of your life, including the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
For Acute Issues:
Now, for acute issues, the modality of medicine that takes precedent will depend on your circumstances. For example, if you are in a major car accident, then you want to go straight to the emergency room for the best conventional care you can receive. Invasive procedures like surgery could be life-saving.
As you are healing from your injuries, you may incorporate nutritious foods, herbs, supplements, and homeopathic remedies to support bone-healing. You may consider getting an osteopathic treatment to optimize blood and lymph flow and more. You may meditate and visualize your body getting better.
For less emergent issues, such as sinus congestion, you may choose more natural and less invasive therapies first. Perhaps, you’ll use echinacea and elderberry to boost your immune system and saline nasal rinses to encourage drainage. Also, an osteopathic treatment could help support the natural flow in the body. There are often many options to choose from prior to reaching for antibiotics which are more invasive and disrupt the body’s natural gut flora.
For Chronic Illness
In chronic illness, the imbalances have become more apparent. If you have a chronic illness, it is imperative to take an integrative approach. Diet and lifestyle modification can no longer be ignored.
Chronic disease has been rising over the decades and accounts for the most deaths in the United States. In fact, 7 out of the top 10 leading causes of deaths are chronic diseases, including as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
Conventional medicine was not designed to take care of chronic disease. It is great for emergencies that require life-saving heroic care. For example, if you have cardiovascular disease and have a heart attack, then you want to go straight to the hospital. This is because conventional care is disease-focused. It’s good at putting out those fires.
Afterwards, the ongoing healing is best dealt with by integrative medicine which is health-focused. The fire might be out but the coals are still hot. It’s no longer an emergency but the health of the body still needs nourishment to continue to improve. Dealing with smoldering issues is not the forte of conventional medicine but of integrative medicine.
I hear this over and over again. For instance, a friend told me that the hospital care her mom received to treat a stroke was amazing. But once her mom was discharged from the hospital, they were left on their own to figure out the day-to-day lifestyle management to best support health.
There were lingering questions, such as “What can she eat to help reduce the risk of strokes?” or “What about meditation or mindfulness?” or “Would acupuncture help?” and “What else can I do?”
Integrative medicine can help answer these questions.
In doing so, patients feel empowered.
For Difficult Issues
Conventional physicians are happy to refer to me when they have a patient with difficult issues. Maybe psychosocial problems come into play. Or, no matter what they do, nothing seems to be enough. The patient is not getting better or could improve even more.
When a practitioner or patient feels stumped, it’s good to have an open mind. After all, you can’t solve a problem with the same ol’ thinking.
Integrative medicine opens doors. It allows for creativity of healing. After all, medicine is an art. When challenging medical issues arise, you want a collaborative team to help.
I don’t feel the need to work in my own box. If my patients benefit from the help of other practitioners, I am grateful. Being connected with other healing practitioners is a blessing.
What is an integrative medicine doctor?
An integrative medicine physician is not tied to any one modality of healing. The loyalty is to the patient. That way, a doctor of integrative medicine can choose from a vast toolbox of therapies for what best suits the patient. With various options, it is easier to individualize the treatment for the patient.
Visits are typically much longer than the 10-minute visit for conventional care. It takes time to get to know a patient and understand what their needs are for optimal health.
Often, recommendations empower patients with the knowledge they need to take better care of themselves. This takes much more time and is far more rewarding than writing a prescription.
It’s not that an integrative medicine doctor doesn’t write prescriptions. Again, there’s access to many other tools in the therapeutic toolbox. If there are less invasive and helpful options, such as dietary and lifestyle changes, then those are considered first.
An integrative medicine doctor often has a collaborative relationship with other practitioners of integrative medicine, including osteopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, etc. If needed, a team approach will be incorporated for your care.
Keep in mind that each doctor of integrative medicine is also unique. Some have further training in specialized areas of integrative medicine like acupuncture or osteopathy. Some may be pediatricians or internists or surgeons. Pick the practitioner based on what you feel best suits your needs.
Types and examples of integrative medicine
- Healing Touch
- Vitamin and mineral supplements (nutraceuticals)
- Diet and nutrition
- Tai chi
- Qi gong
- Tension & Trauma Release Exercises
- Other body movement therapies
- Guided imagery
- Art therapy
Traditional and other modalities:
- Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Flower essences
- Functional medicine
Does Medicare / Medicaid or insurance cover integrative medicine?
The health modalities incorporated in integrative medicine are wide and varied, such as those listed above. Many of these modalities will not be covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or insurance.
However, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), more and more people are choosing to use integrative medicine. Interestingly, this increase is even more pronounced in those that do not have insurance than those who do.
Certain integrative modalities, such as chiropractic or acupuncture, may have partial insurance coverage, although this varies widely depending on insurance. It would be even more rare for an insurance company to offer full coverage.
Typically, Medicare (for those 65 and older) and Medicaid (for the underinsured) do not cover integrative medicine products and services. One exception is chiropractic care. If spinal manipulation is deemed medically necessary, Medicare Part B may offer coverage.
Is integrative medicine affordable?
Yes! Integrative medicine is affordable for both the individual, the government, and insurance companies.
Why? Well, it’s a huge paradigm shift from disease-focused model (conventional medicine) to a health-focused model (integrative medicine).
Take for example approaching high cholesterol and hypertension. In a disease-focused model, a physician writes a prescription to counter the illness which is likely paid for by insurance. The physician has very little if any time to talk about a healthy diet, nor would s/he be paid to do so in this model.
In a health-focused model, a physician could write for a prescription for healthy food which could be paid for by insurance. (They are doing this in Michigan!)
In doing so, you affect the lives of a person in many more ways because you are supporting the overall health, can sometimes reverse disease thus avoiding downstream complications, and improve the life in many more ways (like mood, energy, sleep…) so that they can feel good and have a better quality of life and possibly be more present and have better relationships, etc.
Plus, this can drive the cost of healthcare down, making it more feasible to provide universal healthcare coverage. Fortunately, there is hope!
New models like this are being studied. Here’s one report from Tufts University:
“When the researchers ran their model with a prescription for fruits and vegetables, they estimated that 1.93 million cardiovascular events would be prevented and $39.7 billion would be saved. When they ran it with the broader prescription for healthy foods, they estimated that 3.28 million cardiovascular events and 120,000 diabetes cases would be avoided and $100.2 billion would be saved.”Reuters Health