doctor holding stethoscope who practices alternative medicine

What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine and health is more than its own branch of medicine -- it encompasses the best aspects of many branches of medicine. Originally referred to as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), leaders in the field instead adopted the term “integrative.” This pays homage to the fact that while integrative medicine does indeed utilize alternatives to what might be considered “normal” healthcare, it also embraces conventional means of treatment. Ultimately, integrative medicine searches for the best options for patients across many walks of medicine. 

A Holistic Approach

Like many alternative medicines, integrative medicine takes a holistic view of healthcare. That is to say: every aspect of the individual must be taken into account, from the physical to the emotional to the metaphysical. Indeed, holistic medicine has much in common with integrative health. However, there are many different approaches to integrative medicine -- in much the same way conventional medicine has specialty doctors. Many healthcare facilities in the United States have begun taking into account the benefits of including more than one means of accomplishing treatment goals. The Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) was formed by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine (ABIHM) and American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) in 2013 “as a solution to our growing healthcare crisis,” calling it “a bold response to a call to action for change — to transform the way we think about health and health care.” 

The Physician’s Role

Since integrative medicine includes practical applications from so many different types of medicine, it only makes sense that it also adopts an integration of principles. While conventional medicine is largely directed by the physician, integrative medicine seeks to change that role. Instead of the standard doctor you might expect to see for treatment, integrative physicians -- unsurprisingly -- take on a much more integrative role. They become a mentor, creating a partnership between patient and physician. In this new role, the physician’s job is to help the patient learn not only how to treat the current problem, but how to prevent diseases and how to achieve health globally, rather than systemically. 

A Change in Healthcare 

In recent years, many US hospitals have incorporated integrated approaches, while centers dedicated to integrative health have begun popping up. One of the most key aspects of integrative health is the emphasis it places on empirical data. Yes, integrative health and medicine utilizes alternative medicines -- but it doesn’t incorporate just any treatment; it incorporates treatments with evidence and research that prove their efficacy. Beyond standard pharmacological and surgical procedures, integrative medicine might make use of chiropractics, acupuncture, and stress reduction, combined with nutritional education, yoga, and biofeedback. In this way, physicians can help treat more than just the symptoms -- they can provide treatment and prevention techniques for the whole person. 

Unfortunately, at this stage in integrative medicine, insurance companies haven’t quite caught up with the times. This can mean a lot of out of pocket costs, although some insurance does pay for certain alternative therapies. In any case, one of the most important things to understand about integrative medicine is that it is still in a state of flux. But perhaps it always will be, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Retaining the ability and desire to change allows constant room for improvement, and prevents the stagnation that integrative medicine sees in contemporary methods of treatment. 

Last Updated: December 07, 2016