We both hear and use the term integrative medicine more and more these days – there is increasing awareness, and happily, increasing use of integrative approaches to medicine. But what does that mean and why an integrative approach in medicine is so important?
What is an integrative approach?
There are many definitions of integrative medicine – here’s one that I think is accurate and comprehensive.
Integrative medicine is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. It recognizes the importance of the therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient, and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and alternative.
Beyond defining integrative medicine, we can also go one step further and evaluate the guiding principles of integrative medicine. These help us to understand that integrative medicine is so much more than coupling Western therapies with more alternative therapies. It’s actually a system of medicine with philosophies and principles.
Here are the principles of integrative medicine. Integrative medicine incorporates:
- A partnership between patient and practitioner in the healing process. I love this because it implies a team approach, which is definitely how I think of my patients. I don’t believe that a doctor should just hand down treatment plans and instructions with no feedback or input at all from their patients.
- Appropriate use of conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body’s innate healing response. This implies that both camps are valuable and that there’s a place for both – more allopathic and more alternative approaches. Neither exists in a vacuum and there is a time and place for everything.
- Consideration of all factors that influence health, wellness and disease, including mind, spirit and community as well as body. I love that this mentions community too – that a persons environment, influences, support networks and sense of belonging can also be reflected in their health.
- A philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine nor accepts alternative therapies uncritically. Yes! It irks me when I hear practitioners saying that their way is the only way, and the other way is “bad”. We have to reject that black and white thinking.
- Recognition that good medicine should be based in good science, be inquiry driven, and be open to new paradigms. I agree. We still seek evidence-based guidelines where possible; while staying open to changes and evolution.
- Use of natural, effective, less-invasive interventions whenever possible. There therapeutic order that we follow in Naturopathic Medicine means that we start with the least invasive therapy, and work up to more invasive/ aggressive therapies as needed. For example, instead of rushing directly to surgery for shoulder pain, first we would try less invasive treatments such as physical therapy, prolotherapy etc.
- Use of the broader concepts of promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as the treatment of disease. In Australia, private health insurance companies reimburse for gym shoes and sporting equipment, because they realize that the more their members work on preventive health, fitness, nutrition and so on, the less disease will ensue.
- Training of practitioners to be models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development. I love this – we as practitioners have a responsibility to strive to be our best self, in many different ways. We are not perfect, of course, and can’t be held to standards of perfection, but it is important that we walk our talk, and work on our own health (of body, mind and spirit).
The Challenge of Modern Medicine
One of the major challenges is that in conventional medicine (aka Western/allopathic medicine), the body is divided into systems – a neurologist looks at the nervous system, a rheumatologist looks at bones, joints, connective tissue; a psychiatrist looks at the brain; an endocrinologist looks at hormones and glands. The body is broken up into parts, and in doing so we lose the view of the body as one whole unit; and often we lose the connection between all the different parts and how they influence each other.
Many illnesses are whole-body illnesses and need a whole-body approach. Integrative medicine meets this need.
So to sum up, integrative medicine is a whole body approach including every system and process, recognizing the way they work together. It blends conventional (Western) medicine with more natural approaches. And it recognizes the important role of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, stress, toxicity etc.