How Integrative Medicine Can Help You Be Healthier

This best-of-both-worlds approach to medicine blends conventional science and complementary practices.

Photo by Craig Cutler

There are countless opinions regarding how to improve health care in the United States, but many experts agree on one fact: “Our current health-care system is mainly a sick-care system,” says Adam Perlman, executive director of the Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey. In the past, Western medical schools did not emphasize teaching lifestyle changes to keep patients healthy; instead they focused on treating patients once they were ill. “The old thinking was, You’re broken—now we’ll fix you,” says Kevin Barrows, clinical director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco. But things are changing.

What Is Integrative Medicine (IM)?

This practice combines conventional Western medicine with nontraditional practices—including acupuncture, herbal treatments, massage, mind-body approaches, nutrition, and stress management—to keep patients in good health. And though its advocates are growing (according to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, 42.8 percent of women, 33.5 percent of men, and nearly 12 percent of children under the age of 18 had used some kind of complementary and alternative medicine), integrative medicine by no means abandons its conventional counterpart.

"Western medicine has many strengths and has made incredible advances," says Victoria Maizes, executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in Tucson, and a family- and integrative-medicine specialist. "People used to die of infections, and now we have antibiotics. They used to die of heart disease, and now we have bypass surgery." An integrative doctor—whether a primary-care physician, an ob-gyn, or an oncologist—enlists Western approaches when appropriate and then complements them with other treatments. An IM doctor won’t go as far as taking a picture of your aura, but don’t be surprised if she supplements your medical prescription with one for a daily walk around the neighborhood. Similarly, a cancer patient receiving chemotherapy might also be getting acupuncture, doing yoga, and practicing meditation for stress reduction.

A few important distinctions: An IM doctor is not the same as an osteopathic or naturopathic doctor, although all three share similarities. A doctor of osteopathic medicine (or DO) gets conventional medical training but with additional instruction on the structure of the body in relation to how it functions; treatment protocol may involve physical manipulation of your body with his hands to diagnose injury or illness and help the body function efficiently. A naturopathic doctor (or ND) gets Western-style medical training but also learns about botanicals, nutrition, and Eastern therapies. "It’s a bit of ‘buyer, beware’ for this specialty," says Tracy Gaudet, executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina. "There are quality, accredited programs for naturopathic medicine, but people can also get an online degree and call themselves an ND with very little education."