What Is Integrative Medicine?

Practitioners combine complementary therapies with traditional Western medicine

Integrative medicine is a patient-focused, whole-person medical practice that uses therapies that are both evidence-based and experience-based. Integrative medicine combines a variety of disciplines, including alternative and conventional Western medical therapies, to provide safe, effective health care.

Practitioners of integrative medicine see patients as partners and work closely with you to ensure you’re receiving the treatments you need. Integrative medicine addresses many factors, including the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental influences that affect a person’s health status.

In addition to providing treatments that address immediate health concerns, integrative medicine focuses on the broader concepts of health (including living a healthy lifestyle) that promote a person’s overall health and well-being now and into the future. 

Integrative medicine professional and patient

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What It Involves

Integrative medicine places an emphasis on the practitioner-patient relationship and is based upon a model of focusing on health and wellness, rather than a model of disease. By personalizing care for each individual, integrative medicine treats more than just the symptoms.

Together, you and your practitioner address the causes of an illness, including biological, psychosocial, environmental, and behavioral factors, as well as prevention. The integrative medicine approach addresses your immediate health needs as well as the other factors that influence your long-term health and well-being.

Practitioners of integrative medicine integrate the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in addition to conventional treatments. CAM therapies are only used if proven to be effective, safe, and appropriate for a person’s individual health status.

Evidence-based CAM therapies often used with conventional medical care include:

During your first visit with an integrative medicine practitioner, your health history will be reviewed, and you’ll explore the root causes of your illness to help understand how emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and environmental factors may be contributing to your health concerns.

You will work closely with the practitioner to develop a personalized wellness plan based on your immediate health needs. You will also be encouraged to develop healthy behaviors and self-care skills you can use throughout your life to fulfill and sustain your long-term health goals. 

Integrative medicine doesn’t replace the care you receive from your primary doctor. Instead, it complements existing treatments prescribed by your primary care and specialty providers. Once you’ve met with an integrative medicine practitioner, they will send your primary provider a summary of your visit and a list of therapies recommended.

In some cases, an integrative practitioner may be a primary provider, depending on their professional training and the licensing requirements of the jurisdiction.

Any suggested natural remedies and complementary therapies included in your personalized wellness plan should not interfere with any traditional medications you’ve been prescribed, and instead are meant to maximize your body’s potential for healing alongside any other treatments you are receiving. 

Integrative medicine encourages people to take responsibility for their health and well-being when working in partnership with their healthcare professionals and on their own.

If you are interested in receiving integrated medical care, check with your insurance provider to determine which costs will be covered. Some insurance companies do not cover the complementary and alternative therapies that are used in integrative medicine. Some cover certain treatments, such as acupuncture and some mind-body therapies.

Training and Certification

In addition to being educated and fully accredited in their profession/specialty, integrative medicine physicians can be certified in integrative medicine. The American Board of Physician Specialties offers an integrative medicine certification through the American Board of Integrative Medicine.

Completion of the board certification indicates that the practitioner has proven knowledge and experience in integrative medicine practices. It also reflects the physician’s commitment to adhere to the Medical Code of Ethics.

At this time, certification in integrative medicine is voluntary.  Certification attests that practitioners are knowledgeable in the field and gives them the recognition of having met the required standards of achievement.

Types of Integrative Medicine Professionals

Integrative medicine practitioners include professionals of many disciplines—medical doctors, nurse practitioners, doctors of osteopathic medicine, naturopaths, chiropractors, mental health professionals, mind-body specialists, massage therapists, and practitioners of complementary therapies such as reiki and acupuncture.

The educational and accreditation requirements for these professions vary widely, as does the regulation of these specialties. 

If you are looking for an integrative medicine practitioner, look for someone who is fully accredited in their specialty and transparent about their experiences and belief system (e.g., do they believe in the mind-body-spirit connection that underlies the foundation of integrative medicine?).

Good integrative medicine practitioners see their patients not only their patients as partners but are also willing to work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals responsible for your care.

Part of what makes integrative medicine so unique is the sharing of information among healthcare professionals who are attending to the needs of each patient. Research shows that interprofessional collaboration can improve patient outcomes.

Conditions Treated

Integrative medicine therapies are used to treat many health conditions and diseases, including:

  • Anxiety 
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain 
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headache/migraine
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure
  • Infertility
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Menopause
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • PTSD

Integrative medicine is growing in popularity in healthcare settings throughout the United States, as more people are interested in more holistic, individualized approaches to healing. Many hospitals have been trialing integrative medicine programs and investigating the impact it has on patient care.

A number of reviews and clinical studies have shown positive outcomes for patients and providers who participate in integrative medicine programs.

Researchers are exploring the benefits of integrative medicine for several conditions and situations, including pain management, symptom relief for cancer patients and survivors, and programs that promote healthy behaviors to sustain long-term health.

History

Humans have practiced medicine throughout the world for thousands of years. History shows us that new medical interventions have often been a blend of old traditions with innovations in societies worldwide. In that way, integrative medicine has informally been practiced by humans for many years.

Some practitioners more formally adopted integrative medicine in the early 1990s. In 1994, the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine (AzCIM) was founded, with a primary focus on educating physicians in integrative medicine.

The Academic Collaborative for Integrative Health was developed in 2004 to promote policies and action to advance integrated healthcare throughout the United States. Today, integrative medicine is an internationally recognized movement in medicine.

A Word From Verywell

People turn to integrative medicine to treat their health conditions for a variety of reasons. Some choose integrative medicine because they wish to integrate complementary therapies with the traditional Western medicine treatments they receive.

Others prefer the holistic approach to care for their health and consider integrative medicine more aligned with their beliefs in treating the whole person rather than just a disease/medical condition. Some prefer the personalized approach to care that integrative medicine offers. 

As integrative medicine continues to grow in popularity, research shows promising evidence that integrative medicine can provide effective, safe, and cost-effective treatments and prevent future disease in patients while fostering overall wellness.

Patients who have participated in integrative medicine report having established positive, caring relationships with healthcare providers who promoted their self-care and well-being and reported high overall satisfaction with their experiences.

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Article Sources
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