What is Integrative Medicine?
The two-second explanation of Integrative Medicine (IM)
Integrative Medicine combines the precision of Western medicine with approaches from complementary and alternative medicine. For example, an integrative medicine practitioner might combine stress-reduction techniques, nutritional guidance, and Western medicine to treat a chronic disease.
What’s the difference between Integrative Medicine and conventional healthcare?
The largest difference is that integrative medicine focuses on prevention and lifestyle. Conventional Western healthcare focuses on managing a disease after it arises.
What is conventional medicine?
Conventional, or allopathic, medicine refers to the medical approach practiced in hospitals in the Western world. Conventional medicine excels at treating emergencies such as strokes and acute issues such as broken bones. Conventional medicine focuses on treating illness after it occurs rather than preventing illness. In conventional medicine treatments, many more drugs and tests are prescribed.
What is CAM?
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to the many medical approaches outside of conventional medicine. Massage, acupuncture, naturopathy, massage, and yoga, for example, are CAM approaches.
A deeper explanation of integrative medicine
In integrative medicine, doctors have more strategies to help patients heal. IM practitioners choose from a range of healthcare strategies, from Western medicine to CAM approaches, to best heal the patient. Lifestyle factors are also an important aspect. Your IM practitioner will ask how you manage stress, how often you exercise, and how often you eat fruits and vegetables.
We now know that only 20% of our health is determined by our genes. The other 80% is determined by our lifestyle choices. Many studies have shown us that lifestyle choices such as eating vegetables, avoiding sugar and unhealthy fats, staying active and not smoking can prevent more cases of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer than drugs can.
Is IM recognized in the medical community?
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Academy of Medicine (previously known as the Institute of Medicine) recognize the value of IM to healthcare. They’ve agreed that healthcare should be:
- person-centered, meaning that the patient is regarded as part of the healthcare team
- that there should be integration of teams of healthcare providers from all disciplines, including CAM
- a focus on lifestyle factors and prevention are crucial when dealing with the complex physical, psychological, and social factors that affect people’s health.
- the ideal practice would involve multiple disciplines and professions cooperating to achieve the best outcomes.
The problems with conventional healthcare
Conventional healthcare is a risky system. More people die every year from taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), commonly prescribed drugs by doctors, than from HIV.
But this is not new information. IM practitioners have been warning about these drugs and suggesting alternatives for decades. There was a IOM report in 1999, a paper by B. Starfield in 2000, and a report by J.T. James in 2013 telling us that mistakes and side effects in the health care provided in hospitals alone (ie: not outpatient care in the community) are the third leading cause of death.
IM with its focus on nutritional choices, physical activity, some nutritional supplementation, smoking cessation, stress management strategies, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic and osteopathy, to mention only a few options, provides safer choices.
Is IM worth the cost to me?
Why do people pay out of their pocket to seek IM practitioners? What extra value, you may ask, do they find the regular healthcare system lacks?
IM pays more attention to the whole person. They can do this in part because they usually spend more time with patients. Conventional medicine depends heavily of tests, drugs and modern technology. These medical and scientific advances are sometimes miraculous but are often overused. The system will spend thousands on a fancy MRI or blood test and not a few hundred to allow doctors time to speak with their patients about important aspects of their lives and health. Often doctors get only a few minutes per patient visit. How can we expect them to spend time listening and counseling when their schedule does not allow them the time?
In IM we talk a lot about healing, even with chronic conditions. We have studies to show that most cases of diabetes can be improved and even cured just through diet and exercise. Heart disease can be reversed. Depression can improve with proper diet and exercise. People feel empowered when they realize how much influence they can have on their own health.
Globally, there are many places where the use of CAM and IM is more common than allopathic medicine. IM has been shown to be cost-effective because it prevents diseases from developing in the first place. In the US alone, patients spend tens of billions each year out of their own pockets in order to get this type of care.
Are IM practitioners certified?
Yes, they are. The American Board of Physician Specialties offers certification for M.D.’s and the Institute for Functional Medicine offers certification for other disciplines.
What should I expect during a visit to an IM practitioner?
When you see an IM practitioner (some of them are doctors and some belong to other professions), you can expect them to gather a lot of information about your lifestyle choices. It may be through questionnaires and interviews. They will want specific details such as exactly how many vegetables you eat and how often you have bowel movements.
Chew on this
Here’s an analogy that might help. Imagine a steep cliff. Integrative medicine would be like building a guardrail at the top of a steep cliff to keep people from falling down instead of just building an emergency room at the bottom to patch them up once they fell.
Know your options and live well!