by Lucy Gade, M.D.
“Integrative medicine” is not just another name for “alternative medicine.” There are 50 institutions around the country that have integrative in their name, at places like Harvard, Stanford, Duke and the Mayo Clinic. Most recently, Northwell Health has acquired its very own Center for Wellness and Integrative Medicine, in Roslyn. Practitioners of integrative medicine and their patients often cite many advantages to this sub-specialty practice. The five most common advantages of integrative medicine lie in its very definition and include:
Integrative medicine is “healing-oriented” rather than disease oriented.
Starting around the turn of the 20th century, the concept of aseptic technique took off and antibiotics were discovered. For the first time, physicians were able to effectively treat infections that were previously taking human lives. Doctors learned how bacteria and viruses transmit illnesses. Out of this experience was born the concept of treating “acute” illnesses. As a result, the culture of the medical profession began to address acute illness and neglect the prevention side of health.
Integrative medicine’s focus, like the ancient systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine and ayurveda, concerns itself with wellness, vitality and healing. It begins with the assumption that there is a physiologic balance that is disrupted and leads to the manifestations of illness and disease. Regaining the body’s natural state of equilibrium can restore this balance and promote health.
Integrative medicine focuses on the “whole person” (mind, body and spirit), as well as the community and environment a person lives in as important aspects of health.
Too often patients go to doctors with multiple symptoms affecting multiple organ systems and see different practitioners for each of their problems. Integrative medicine puts the focus on how the various symptoms may be connected and searches for the root causes, rather than just treating the individual symptoms. The focus becomes restoring balance and taking into account the aspects of the patients’ life that may affect their ability to adhere to recommendations. For example, cultural barriers to dietary recommendations or inability to adhere to a particular exercise and movement program because of their work schedule, etc.
Integrative medicine places an even greater emphasis on the therapeutic relationship.
This focus on the practitioner-patient partnership is forcing the entire medical community to grapple with certain questions: How has the role of the clinician changed over the years? Are there better ways to treat the kinds of health problems that can usually only be managed, not cured? The integrative partnership is one where patients are guided and advised regarding their treatment options. Together the practitioner and patient decide on the “best” plan of action. In the management of the more chronic diseases, the attention is placed on meeting the patient where they are at the moment. By addressing obstacles to lifestyle changes and treatment adherence, there is a higher likelihood of success with the recommended therapy.
Integrative medicine places an importance on the acquisition of all of the available evidence for each individual’s unique condition.
The actual treatment recommendations may vary in integrative treatment plans according to each individual’s unique situation. In the process of tailoring treatment plans to each individual’s needs, practitioners are scrutinizing the literature, often using the scientific method to evaluate alternative therapies the same way as traditional therapies. As a result, many therapies that were once considered alternative, e.g., meditation (which has been shown to be associated with a 48 percent reduction in heart disease, stroke and sudden death) have become mainstream recommendations. Integrative assessments are highly personalized with in-depth evaluations and unhurried consultations where patients are asked about everything from environmental exposures to personal relationships. All of these factors are considered important in determining whether or not a person stays healthy.
5. Integrative medicine makes use of all appropriate therapies.
By combining all the traditional allopathic treatment options along with mind-body therapies, such as yoga and meditation, a treatment plan is developed that utilizes the least invasive and most cost-effective therapies first. What ties integrative doctors together is that their focus is on attaining a sense of “well-being.” This is especially important in cases where “cure” is not always possible, as in the management of certain aggressive cancers. Most integrative providers prefer to prescribe treatments that are amenable to scientific investigation. However, patients are not dissuaded from using certain treatments as long as the proposed remedies have at least been proven to be safe.
Medicine is a highly adaptable profession. New studies are constantly challenging conventional wisdom and the way medicine is practiced. Some of the most important changes in medicine, however, have been cultural ones that have challenged what clinicians consider their role as providers to be. Integrative medicine, with its emphasis on treating the patient’s “body, mind and spirit,” can prove to be one of these pivotal moments of self-reflection enforcing the concept that the best way to treat diseases that take many years to develop and are intimately tied to the way people think, feel and live their everyday lives is through the integrative approach.
Lucy Gade, M.D., is the medical director of Northwell Health’s Center for Wellness and Integrative Medicine, in Roslyn. For more information, call 516-858-3095 or visit Northwell.edu/integrativemedicine.