The expression “integrative medicine” is one we’re starting to hear quite frequently. Here, at Affinity Med Spa, you’re likely to hear it a lot! But what, exactly does it mean? And how does it differ from the traditional health care model?
A good place to start would be with the definition offered by the folks at Duke University who define integrative medicine as “an approach to care that puts the patient at the center and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person’s health.” 1
The emphasis that we’ve added to Duke Integrative Medicine’s definition highlights the focus of integrative medicine as well as the way it diverges from traditional medicine. Putting the patient “at the center” of a healthcare approach doesn’t sound so radical. At least it doesn’t until it’s compared with the kind of medicine most of us are familiar with.
Traditional medicine has historically used a disease model for treatment. In its most extreme form it views the body as a machine which must be fixed when it’s broken. It’s concerned with identifying, examining, counting, measuring, and addressing the “problems” that arise in our bodies. There’s very little emphasis on prevention, and patients are often perceived as “cases” rather than individuals in a complex sociocultural and humanistic context. If you’ve ever had the feeling that it was not really you, but your tumor, broken bone, headache, etc., that your practitioner was most interested in, you’ll understand what we mean.
Integrative medicine, by contrast, uses a wellness or healing-oriented model. Health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. It takes the whole person into account (body, mind, and spirit), and includes all aspects of his or her lifestyle. If we look at our original definition again, we see that the integrative medicine approach addresses “. . . the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person’s health.”
Obviously, in an approach that puts the emphasis on health and healing, the prevention of disease is going to be paramount. And the holistic nature of integrative medicine demands a true partnership between patient and practitioner throughout the healing process.
It’s important to understand that integrative medicine doesn’t necessarily reject conventional medicine. Traditional medicine is effective for treating acute infections, emergency situations, and life-threatening events. Even Dr. Andrew Weil, possibly the world’s leading proponent of integrative medicine, has acknowledged that there’s a time and a place for traditional convention medicine. “If I were hit by a bus,” he says, “I’d want to be taken immediately to a high-tech emergency room.” 2
It’s just as important to know that the integrative medicine approach doesn’t uncritically embrace every alternative therapy. Some alternative therapies have the weight of scientific validation behind them. Others simply don’t. But good medicine should be inquiry-driven and open to new paradigms. The goal is to unite—to integrate— the best that conventional medicine has to offer with other healing systems and therapies derived from cultures and ideas both old and new. Cognitive therapy, meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic, diet and nutrition counseling, yoga and exercise therapies, and massage are some of the therapeutic approaches that may be used, or blended, with conventional techniques, to treat the whole patient.
The emergence of integrative medicine (IM) has prompted greater awareness of the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies as part of cancer care. 3 For cancer patients especially, Integrative Medicine provides ways to ease stress and cope with depression. It’s also been remarkably effective at successfully treating chronic conditions where patients often experience pain for months or even years on end—a area where conventional medicine too often fails.
Generally speaking, practitioners of integrative medicine try to use the most natural and least invasive interventions, which typically are low-tech and low-cost. Those are environmental as well as economic benefits. The bottom line, though, is that integrative medicine focuses on the whole person using all appropriate therapies, health care expertise and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.