Learn the facts on integrative medicine

integrative medicine

By Aisha Langford

A quick and conventional prescription may help when you don't feel well -- but other emerging methods can go beyond taking pills.

Integrative medicine is gaining mainstream popularity, as it uses conventional medicine in coordination with nontraditional treatments such as meditation. This treatment style focuses on the "whole person" -- including social, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being -- to improve health and wellness rather than just treating physical aspects of a disease or illness.

"Integrative medicine brings together the best ways of healing and gives providers more tools to help patients," says Dr. Molly Roberts, an integrative holistic physician in San Francisco. She specializes in mind-body-spirit medicine, women's health, relationship and family counseling, and conflict resolution.

About a third of American adults use these "complementary health approaches," according to a 2012 National Health Interview Survey. These approaches include using natural supplements such as fish oil or engaging in practices such as massage, yoga, chiropractic manipulation and meditation.

How is integrative medicine used?

The term "integrative medicine" has evolved over the last few decades.

A nonmainstream practice used together with conventional medicine is considered "complementary." If a nonmainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it's considered "alternative." Complementary and alternative medicine is termed CAM. "Holistic medicine" considers the body, mind, spirit, and emotional connection as a way to improve health. The term "holistic medicine" turns off some individuals because they think it has a spiritual connection.

The term "integrative medicine" now describes the evolving field. It uses several approaches to help the patient feel better.

Sometimes the best tool for the patient will be medication, sometimes it will be counseling, and sometimes it will be yoga or a combination of traditional and nontraditional therapies.

"The goal for treatment is to pick the least risky treatment with the most research behind it," says Roberts.

How is the field expanding?

In the past, medical providers worked within their own area of expertise. Now, different types of providers are working collaboratively to help patients.

For example, an oncologist may work closely with a mental health professional, acupuncturist, clergy member, and art therapist to help a patient dealing with cancer pain.

Different integrative medicine professionals can address various aspects of the patient experience. For example, some professionals focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of health, while others focus on improving physical function and mental wellness through practices such as yoga and tai chi.

"Our goal is to help patients have confidence that integrative medicine is good medicine -- that all aspects of health should be addressed to improve wellness, happiness, joy and purpose," says Roberts.

Integrative medicine gives patients a chance to weigh in on the treatment process.

"People know themselves better than their doctors because they're with themselves 24/7," says Roberts. "The information that patients can provide doctors is very important."

How health insurance figures in

In general, if you visit a board-certified medical doctor such as a primary care doctor or a specialist who also happens to practice integrative medicine, such visits can often be billed to your health plan. However, all policies are different and it's best to check your individual insurance policy to know what's covered.

Because integrative medicine doctors tend to spend more time with patients and offer a wider set of services than is typically covered by insurance, some integrative medicine providers have chosen not to accept health insurance plans. In these cases, the patient may have to pay out of pocket for services.

Not all doctors practice integrative medicine. Expertise in this area is developed over time, so it's best to find a provider who specializes in this area. You can also tell your current doctor that you'd like to explore integrative medicine options. He or she may be able to refer you to resources or colleagues in the integrative medicine field.

To find a doctor who practices integrative medicine, visit the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine at AIHM.org under the "Find a provider" tab. For more information about integrative medicine, visit the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health.