Is Integrative Medicine a long ago, forgotten practice or the practice of the future? Think back to a simpler time and visualize a small town where the local doctor was the town’s best friend. He would know your entire family on a first name basis and remember when you acquired your first cold. Integrative Medicine is based on a partnership between the doctor and the patient. This partnership addresses the care of a patient’s body, mind, and spirit. Together, the patient and the doctor will discuss and choose the best possible course of treatment. And like the small town’s best friend, a doctor practicing Integrative Medicine gets to know their patients very well, acting at times as a counselor. It is the belief in Integrative Medicine that patient’s need to achieve balance and well being in all aspects of life: physical, nutritional, environmental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Integrative Medicine practices conventional medicine, as well as complementary therapies with prevention of disease its primary focus.
When treating disease, a practitioner of Integrative Medicine investigates the root cause and then addresses those needs. This may mean that the patient may have to make certain lifestyle changes. It is also the view of Integrative Medicine that the patients are ultimately responsible for their own well being. Somebody who is consumed with stress may have to make lifestyle changes to get well.
Too much stress may appear in the form of illness, infertility or fatigue. Chronic stress can damage your overall health, including:
• Your immune system. Stress can suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to viral infections, such as influenza, and bacterial infections, such as tuberculosis.
• Your cardiovascular health. Stress causes a more rapid heartbeat and may bring on chest pain (angina) and irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia). Stress may even lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Experts explore new ways to treat the mind, body, and spirit — all at the same time.
At age 68, Martha McInnis has had her share of health woes: breast cancer, high cholesterol, clogged arteries, osteoporosis, and scoliosis — curvature of the spine. Once a year she journeys from her home in Alabama to the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina where an internist, endocrinologist, and other specialists monitor her with blood tests, X-rays, bone scans, and other tests.
But McInnis knows that she’s more than the sum of her illnesses. When her checkup ends, she heads for the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, where she has learned about nutrition, fitness, yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other practices she says have helped her to live better. “I became an avid tai chi person,” she says. “I’m a type A personality. I knew I had to do something about my lifestyle. I had to bring myself down to a type B.”
Many Americans have never heard of integrative medicine, but this holistic movement has left its imprint on many of the nation’s hospitals, universities, and medical schools.
Treating the Whole Person
Both doctors and patients alike are bonding with the philosophy of integrative medicine and its whole-person approach — designed to treat the person, not just the disease.
IM, as it’s often called, depends on a partnership between the patient and the doctor, where the goal is to treat the mind, body, and spirit, all at the same time.
While some of the therapies used may be nonconventional, a guiding principle within integrative medicine is to use therapies that have some high-quality evidence to support them.
Conventional and Alternative Approaches
The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine is a classic model of integrative care. It combines conventional Western medicine with alternative or complementary treatments, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, yoga, and stress reduction techniques — all in the effort to treat the whole person. Proponents prefer the term “complementary” to emphasize that such treatments are used with mainstream medicine, not as replacements or alternatives.
Integrative medicine got a boost of greater public awareness — and funding — after a landmark 1993 study. That study showed that one in three Americans had used an alternative therapy, often under the medical radar.
In the past decade, integrative medicine centers have opened across the country. According to the American Hospital Association, the percentage of U.S. hospitals that offer complementary therapies has more than doubled in less than a decade, from 8.6% in 1998 to almost 20% in 2004. Another 24% of hospitals said they planned to add complementary therapies in the future. Patients usually pay out of pocket, although some services — such as nutritional counseling, chiropractic treatments, and biofeedback — are more likely to be reimbursed by insurance.
The Appeal of Integrative Medicine
What makes integrative medicine appealing? Advocates point to deep dissatisfaction with a health care system that often leaves doctors feeling rushed and overwhelmed and patients feeling as if they’re nothing more than diseased livers or damaged joints. Integrative medicine seems to promise more time, more attention, and a broader approach to healing — one that is not based solely on the Western biomedical model, but also draws from other cultures.
“Patients want to be considered whole human beings in the context of their world,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, a National Institutes of Health senior scientist and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.