Over 30 of American adults use medical approaches outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine. Those who are interested in applying complementary treatments for their health and wellbeing can seek a care provider who practices integrative medicine.
What is an integrative medicine physician?
Any healthcare provider can claim to be “integrative.” However, an integrative medicine physician has advanced specialized training in both conventional (western medicine) and complementary or alternative medicine practices with an emphasis on healing rather than symptom management.
Integrative medicine, as defined by the Program in Integrative Medicine (University of Arizona), is “healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.”
An integrative medicine physician can prescribe all standard Western medical therapies and medications, but they also recommend alternative and complementary therapies and treatments. Complementary therapies are non-mainstream medical practices used simultaneously with conventional Western medicine. Alternative therapies are non-mainstream health practices used in place of conventional medicine.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) “Most complementary health approaches fall into one of two subgroups—natural products or mind and body practices.”
Natural medical products include healing herbs, vitamin and mineral supplements, and probiotics. Mind and body practices include chiropractic and osteopathic treatments, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, healing touch and massage therapies, movement therapies, etc. Integrative health physicians may also practice additional complementary healing treatments such as traditional Eastern medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
It is the specialized training in both conventional and complementary medicine practices that make the integrative medicine physician important to someone looking to take control of their health.
Why should I consider an integrative medicine physician?
There is increasing interest in using various non-mainstream therapies such as chiropractic treatment, Eastern medicine, and mind-body therapies alongside conventional medical approaches. Many Americans are utilizing these two very different medical systems — conventional Western medicine practices and complementary health approaches — simultaneously and without proper guidance. Not all complementary treatments work well with conventional treatments.
The popularity of non-mainstream therapies has grown so rapidly that many medical centers across the country are offering these therapies to their patients, often without input from an integrative medicine physician. Certain types of medical treatments and complementary approaches should not be used together. For example, we know that many supplements and pharmaceutical medications potentially interfere with each other.
Though the statistics vary slightly in different studies, somewhere between 35-40% of Americans regularly use some form of alternative or complementary medicine, and almost 60% of Americans also are taking multiple medications. The negative interactions between natural supplements and pharmaceutical medications are significant and probably under-reported.
Most Western physicians know very little about alternative medicine, and alternative health practitioners often know very little about traditional medicine. An integrative medicine physician bridges this significant knowledge gap.
How are integrative medicine physicians trained?
All physicians have an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) degree. They must complete four years of college, four years of medical school, and pass two national examinations to receive their medical degree. To practice medicine, there are an additional three to seven years of training (residency) followed by passing another national examination. Specialists are required to take additional training beyond their residency, known as a fellowship, for one or more years and a national examination in their specialty. Unfortunately, little of this training includes alternative or complementary treatments.
There are many different types of healthcare providers in alternative and complementary medicine. The requirements for completion vary considerably depending on the kind of treatment. Chiropractic, naturopathic, and traditional Eastern medicine qualifications often require three to four years of education and successful completion of national examinations. However, some energy healing training can be completed over a weekend on the internet. Other types of complementary medicine do not require any formal training. When learning alternative healing practices, formal education in traditional medicine is not typically emphasized.
An integrative medicine physician must complete all of the requirements of a typical physician plus a one to two-year fellowship in alternative medicine. They receive extensive training in understanding how to blend both Western and alternative medicine practices. This fellowship is often followed by a national medical board examination.
An integrative medicine physician is a real doctor but with additional education in many areas of alternative medicine. In the United States, there are about twenty-four integrative medicine fellowship programs. The Program in Integrative Medicine (PIM) at the University of Arizona is the first and largest integrative medicine physician training program. The PIM is the brainchild of Andrew Weil, MD, and since 2000, this two-year program has taught over 1,400 physicians. These graduates are experts in Western medicine and alternative therapies and can safely and efficiently blend the best of both types of medicine for their patients.
Not all integrative medicine physicians practice primary care. However, many can be found working in family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, and gynecology. Some are in academic medical centers as researchers, teachers, and administrators.
Integrative medicine is considered a medical subspecialty and has a medical board certification for integrative medicine through the American Board of Physicians and Surgeons. Insurance may cover office visits if the physician is contracted with the insurance company. Some integrative medicine physicians do not accept insurance reimbursement.
How do integrative medicine physicians diagnose and treat illnesses?
The goal of an integrative medicine physician is to reestablish a state of health and well-being, not simply suppressing the symptoms of an illness. Integrative medicine physicians treat the same illnesses as conventional physicians. They can order medical tests, perform surgery, and consult on especially difficult cases.
Where a standard physician may prescribe a medication for high blood pressure, an integrative medicine physician may initially also prescribe medication but also provide suggestions for complementary treatment such as stress reduction therapies, an improved diet, exercise, meditation, and medication-compatible herbs or supplements. All of these treatments would be intended to reverse the high blood pressure, eventually making the medication and possibly even herbs and supplements unnecessary.
Where can I find an integrative medicine physician?
The largest list of fellowship trained and board certified integrative medicine physicians is on the University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine website.