Compelling statistics document an increasing proportion of Americans visiting alternative health practitioners in addition to seeing their physicians. Studies also show that patients are unlikely to tell their medical doctors about their visits to the chiropractor, massage therapist, or herbalist. The specialty of integrative medicine has grown because it addresses both patients’ desire for greater access to alternatives as well as physicians’ frustration with the corporatized health care industry. Physicians who practice integrative medicine want to spend more time with patients and may recommend alternative therapies along with conventional medicine. Integrative physicians engage patients in open discussion of their personal values and health goals. Sharing a vision of holistic health, integrative physicians coordinate with alternative practitioners on treatment plans to help their patients improve health and well-being.
In the last twenty years, integrative medicine has moved decisively towards the medical mainstream because of increased research funding, the development of a body of scientific literature that evaluates health outcomes, the establishment of academic journals, and codification of medical training in this specialty. For example, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is funding research investigating how biopsychosocial mechanisms and processes are involved in managing chronic conditions. Results of NCCIH-sponsored studies may be published in prestigious journals such as the Archives of Internal Medicine or in one of a dozen academic journals devoted to integrative/complementary medicine. Finally, 23 medical schools have come together to determine what are the “core competencies” that medical students in integrative practice must master. All of these developments have helped to legitimize and institutionalize this new field of medicine.
The source of real growth in this field, however, is the increased satisfaction by both patients and doctors. The experience of one of my interviewees is typical. When Larry S. was asked if he was happy that he switched to an integrative medical practice, he responded: “More than happy. Ecstatic! It’s very personalized. I feel as though I’m being treated as a person.” His first visit with his integrative doctor was 90 minutes long. Larry also saw the nutritionist who helped him make dietary changes to address his diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. His treatment program included dietary changes, supplements, and stress-reduction activities. The results were striking: “In about a two month period –I went from being really unhealthy to actually feeling healthy! My body felt better, I was sleeping better, my mind was clearer, I was happier, less moody–and I was like, whoa! This is incredible! And it wasn’t about adding more drugs to my body, it was about finding out where my body was deficient. . . . So I’m ecstatic with this whole new direction. I’m going to get off of drugs and actually be healthy. I’m feeling like my life is being lengthened.”
So no wonder integrative medicine is popular.
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