This blog post is written by Diana Weil, Matcha.com's Integrative Nutritionist and Food Relationship Specialist.
If at any point in your life you have sought out medical care or have been thrust into the medical system, you know what a frustrating experience it can be.
Appointments can often take months to get, doctors only have a few minutes to spend with you, and insurance can often make things even more complicated regarding getting the care you need.
You may feel dismissed, not listened to, or even less than human while navigating the complex medical system that can exist in the United States.
While most doctors would love to be able to spend a whole hour with their patients to really get to know them, hear their concerns and provide comprehensive care, the medical system in the United States doesn’t often allow for this. Another issue can be that the western medical system has separated each symptom and body part into separate and distinct categories (often without communication).
If you have a heart condition, you see a cardiologist. If you have headaches, you see a neurologist. If you break a bone, you see an orthopedist, and so on.
Often, these different specialties don’t communicate with one another, which can create more confusion for patients and doctors. Rather than being treated as one whole human being, you are treated as the sum of your parts and the individual symptoms you may have. One of the many problems with this system is that our bodies function as a complete unit, and taking such a singular view of a condition isn’t typically effective or helpful.
Integrative medicine seeks to dissolve this divide and ultimately treats the whole person- mind, body, and spirit.
What is integrative medicine?
Integrative medicine is the intelligent combination of both western and eastern medicine. It seeks to treat the whole patient rather than just the illness or disease. It holds the patient and provider as equals in the health journey and prioritizes this relationship. Integrative medicine believes in a whole-person approach to health and healing and encourages different providers to work closely together to give their patients the best possible care.
Integrative medicine uses a science-backed approach to wellness and a combination of therapies to achieve optimum health and well-being. This may look like combining prescription medication, surgery, yoga, and acupuncture as part of a patient’s treatment plan. When it comes to using integrative medicine to treat a patient, all aspects of the human condition are considered, from mind, spirit, and body to community, stress, and lifestyle.
Integrative medicine advises that natural and less invasive techniques should be used whenever possible. This is not a rejection of medication or more invasive procedures but rather a recommendation to use natural treatments as much as possible.
For example, suppose someone can be treated for headaches solely through lifestyle changes. In that case, that is an ideal scenario as medication, and more invasive techniques may leave someone with unintended side effects. If, however, medication is needed in conjunction with lifestyle modifications, that still aligns with the integrative medicine paradigm.
A key piece of integrative medicine is that it does not reject conventional therapies, nor does it accept alternative ones without question. All therapies used to treat a patient are backed by science and evidence-based.
This type of medicine accepts treatments from the best of both worlds and “integrates” them into one approach to provide patients with top-of-the-line care.
Integrative medicine also examines all aspects of health and aims to prevent illness and disease alongside managing and treating disease.
Ultimately, integrative medicine uses ALL applicable therapies and prioritizes the relationship between healer and patient.
Integrative, alternative and conventional medicine
When it comes to getting medical care, there are three main avenues a patient may choose from integrative, conventional, and alternative medicine. While these three are often lumped into the same category, it is essential to understand their similarities and differences so that patients can advocate for themselves and ultimately get the care they need and want.
There is a misperception that integrative and conventional medicine exist in entirely different medical spheres. When in fact, the opposite is true! Conventional medicine focuses on the symptom, problem, or specific disease using lab work, doctors, clinics, hospitals, etc.
Essentially, what most of us think about when we think of medicine in the United States. Integrative medicine is not a rejection of these things!
The difference between conventional medicine and integrative medicine mainly lies in the fact that integrative medicine utilizes all effective treatments and practices that conventional medicine offers, as well as all effective and science-backed treatments and practices that work from alternative medicine. Integrative medicine is not the opposite of conventional medicine, nor the same as alternative medicine, but rather a close neighbor to both of these.
Alternative medicine utilizes practices that are not part of standard medical care and may or may not be backed by studies and science. These practices may include massage, acupuncture, tai chi, and energy work, among many others. While integrative medicine applies some of these practices, only those that have been rigorously studied and proven effective are accepted by integrative medicine practitioners. Just because something is labeled as natural, does not mean it is automatically accepted or used in integrative medicine.
Does science back integrative medicine? Are there any risks?
As we’ve discussed, integrative medicine is NOT the rejection of science or of western medicine. Instead, it combines the most well-researched, effective, conventional approaches with the most evidence-based complementary therapies to serve patients in as well-rounded a way as possible.
As with any care, risks can be involved. However, integrative medicine aims to reduce this risk as much as possible by utilizing the best of all medical practices. It can even be argued that integrative medicine is associated with the least risk. As with any treatment, it is of the utmost importance to find a provider that is well-trained, that you connect with, and who understands the medical condition you are seeking to treat.
Examples of integrative medicine
Because integrative medicine pulls from all effective and evidence-backed treatments, treatment plans vary from person to person. Therefore, each treatment plan will take a whole-person approach and consider who is being treated, their symptoms, their complete medical background, lifestyle, community support, etc.
One example of integrative medicine in action is a doctor or medical team treating a patient with cancer through chemotherapy, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and nutrition therapy. In this way, the whole person is being treated and not simply cancer.
How to seek out integrative medicine (what providers can use integrative medicine)
The best way to find an integrative doctor in your area is through the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. Putting in your zip code will pull up trained integrative doctors and health care providers in your area. Remember, it’s essential to work with integrative medicine-trained professionals.
An integrative approach can be found in a wide range of professions. A few examples are:
Integrative medicine can also be applied to treat a wide range of conditions and healthy people who are just looking to optimize their health. Some examples of conditions that might benefit from an integrative approach are:
Headaches and migraines
The bottom line: "Integrative medicine is just good medicine"
While we have laid out a few examples of where you can find integrative medicine providers and what conditions integrative medicine can treat, this type of medicine can be utilized in all healing spaces.
As Dr. Weil, the father of integrative medicine, says, integrative medicine is just good medicine.