Integrative medicine is becoming an ever-popular term used to describe a type of primary care medicine that is different from the norm. While patients intuitively know that integrative medicine implies appointments that are longer than a mere 11-minutes (the national average), more appreciation for the myriad factors that influence a person’s health and well-being, and more emphasis on lifestyle modification as a way to treat disease, there is no real definition of what integrative medicine actually is. However, what we do know is that currently, levels of patient dissatisfaction are higher than ever before and something in the way we treat and interact with patients needs to shift. Could an integrative medicine model be the answer?
I think so. But first we must agree upon exactly what integrative medicine means. After spending a good deal of time thinking about and researching what integrative medicine is, what it should include and how it should be practiced, I have decided that integrative medicine encompasses the following ideas:
Integrative Medicine Is Patient-Centered: Integrative medicine is an approach to care that puts the patient first. As a patient, your story, preferences, values and beliefs about your health are taken seriously. Appointments are significantly longer than the average conventional medical appointment, allowing the provider to really get to know you and therefore, how best to serve you.
Integrative Medicine Focuses on All Aspects of a Patient’s Life: Unlike conventional Western medicine which focuses on disease, integrative medicine focuses on all the aspects of a patient’s life—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and environmental—that contribute to a patient’s health and well-being. Science has unequivocally shown us there is a real and profound connection between the brain and the immune system and our emotional state and disease. Doctors who practice integrative medicine spend the time to explore a patient’s relationships, happiness, work environment and stress level, believing these all contribute to one’s health and overall wellness.
Integrative Medicine Is Personalized: Integrative medicine is personalized medicine; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Through the physical exam, laboratory testing, and treatment plan, integrative medicine addresses your individual blueprint. And because each person responds differently to lifestyle changes, nutritional modifications, supplements and medications, your doctor follows your progress closely to ensure lasting results.
Integrative Medicine Addresses the Cause of Illness, Not Just the Symptoms: Whether we are talking about migraines, joint pain, infertility or constipation, we are talking about symptoms, all of which have an underlying cause. Often times in conventional Western medicine, symptoms are misinterpreted as diseases. Integrative medicine works to treat the underlying cause of your symptoms. In doing so, your underlying health status is improved overall.
Integrative Medicine Stimulates the Body’s Innate Healing Process: Anyone who has had cut or burn that has healed or has been sick with an illness and recovered without medication knows that our body has an innate ability to heal itself. It is actually quite amazing what our bodies can heal from if given the opportunity to do so. Integrative medicine uses treatments that stimulate the body’s own innate healing process by removing barriers to healing and then providing the body with what it needs to return to optimal health.
The Least Invasive Treatments Are Used First, When Appropriate: Just as we don’t use a fire extinguisher to put out a single match, it is not always necessary to use invasive or high-force interventions to restore health. Integrative medicine practitioners start with simple and gentle treatments, when appropriate. If a stronger treatment is necessary such as pharmaceutical drugs or surgery, doctors work to help your body prepare for and recover from such treatments.
Evidence-Based Natural Treatments Are Used First, When Appropriate: While it’s true that just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe, natural treatments often work to support our body’s physiology and innate healing abilities instead of overriding them. Furthermore, natural treatments often have fewer side effects than pharmaceutical drugs. We are fortunate to live in a time where a good deal of research is being conducted on the safety and efficacy of natural treatments. Evidence-based natural treatments are used both before and alongside pharmaceutical drugs to achieve the optimal response.
Patient and Doctor Are Partners: Integrative medicine practitioners see the doctor and patient as partners on a journey to health. The role of the doctor is to educate and advise the patient, presenting facts, ideas and recommendations, but is not to overpower or dictate the patient. In this relationship, the patient also takes responsibility for his or her health, asking questions, learning about how the body works, and implementing lifestyle changes. The results that are achieved when patients and doctors act as co-collaborators are significantly more impactful and lasting than when patients are removed from decisions regarding their own health and care.
What does integrative medicine mean to you? We welcome your thoughts and ideas!
Dr. Elizabeth Winter practices integrative and functional medicine in San Diego, CA and sees patients from a distance via Skype. For more information about her and her practice philosophy visit About Dr. Winter.