ay the word “healthcare” and most of us think of a trip to the hospital. But a growing number of people are taking the term literally, caring for their health through a new medical paradigm known as integrative medicine.
Many Delawareans have never heard of integrative medicine, but this holistic movement is making an impact on hospitals, universities and medical schools across the county.
Integrative medicine is an approach that focuses on the whole person and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic modalities, healthcare professionals, and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.
Unlike alternative medicine, which replaces conventional treatments with nontraditional healing therapies, integrative medicine combines the best of Western medicine with proven natural therapies and traditional healing systems. These include acupuncture, yoga, meditation, biofeedback, guided imagery, herbs and supplements, chiropractic, massage, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.
“We’re not against medication when necessary, but when you have time, you have to try other therapies or modalities before you commit a patient to years of taking a pill,” says Dr. Seth Torregiani, an osteopathic physician and director of The Agada Center, which opened in Newark last year.
Integrative medicine is based on a model of health and wellness, not a model of disease. In fact, it draws a distinction between disease and chronic degenerative disorders, such as hypertension, which account for about 70 percent of all doctor’s office visits.
Proponents believe that the body has the capacity to heal itself if we address the lifestyle factors that cause those disorders. Whenever possible, integrative medicine favors low-tech, low-cost interventions. “Hypertension is a perfect example,” says Torregiani. “If people can lose some weight, get salt out of their diet, exercise a bit, a lot of times that will make the need for medication unnecessary or less necessary.”
Integrative medicine recognizes that patients are more than the sum of their illnesses. Physicians who practice integrative medicine consider the many interrelated physical and nonphysical factors that affect health, wellness and disease, including the psychosocial and spiritual dimension of people’s lives.
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“People must have gratitude, belief in a power greater than themselves, feel useful and be a part of a community,” says Dr. Gerald M. Lemole, director of the Center for Integrative Health at Christiana Care and author of “The Healing Diet: A Total Health Program to Purify Your Lymph System and Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease, Arthritis and Cancer.” “Optimal health equates with happiness.”
Integrative medicine encourages patients to take a more proactive role in their health. Indeed, the effectiveness of integrative medicine depends on a partnership between the patient and doctor and acknowledges that each brings valuable information to the relationship.
“There’s less of an emphasis on traditional paternalism that a lot of people complain about in medicine,” says Torregiani. “The doctor may be the one with more knowledge, but it’s the patient’s body, so very often they know their body better than anybody else. Their insights are often very valuable.”
What makes integrative medicine appealing? Advocates point to a deep dissatisfaction with a healthcare system that leaves doctors feeling rushed and patients feeling that they’re viewed as little more than diseased or damaged body parts. Integrative medicine promises more time, more attention and a broader approach to healing—one that seeks to treat the cause of a disorder, not merely the symptoms.
“The advantage of integrative medicine is that we really want to look at the problem rather than the symptoms, and that takes time,” says Lemole. “Taking care of the symptoms is like having a fire in your house. You can cut the wires to the alarm and say it’s taken care of, but the fire’s still down in the cellar.”
Many patients want to have a range of options before committing to a regimen of medications that can have serious side effects. “We can eat better and exercise. We can find healing with laughter yoga and pound away our frustrations with drumming meditation,” says Cheyenne Luzader, coordinator of the Integrative Health-Complementary and Alternative Medicine program at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes. “No prescriptions needed, no side effects and very little cost, if any.”
Some prefer the more individualized care offered by integrated medicine’s approach. “If you have five patients come in for back pain, they’re essentially going to get very similar approaches with conventional medicine,” says Torregiani. “In integrative medicine, you’re trying to use the approach that fits best for that patient, for their age, for their cultural beliefs. It’s trying to reach the patient where they are and tailor the treatment to them as an individual.”
Still others find they accomplish more from having a close relationship with a healthcare professional. “People need someone to cheer them on,” Lemole says. “The biggest factor in losing weight is the counselor.”
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Moreover, since many of the techniques involve self-care, patients feel empowered to achieve or maintain good health. “I think patients are very interested in knowing what they can do preventively, to keep disease from manifesting or to put it off as long as possible, and I think that’s something integrative medicine addresses,” says Torregiani, who learned the value of hands-on medicine during his osteopathic training in California. “Again, traditional medicine is not quite there yet.”
Proponents of integrative medicine also believe the approach has an important role to play in healthcare reform by reducing the incidence of chronic disorders and their associated costs.
“Our position is that if somebody can be corrected by a lifestyle change, it’s not a disease. It’s a disorder, and it’s up to you to reorder your life by a program of diet and stress management,” says Lemole. “We can’t afford to have everyone with elevated cholesterol on a statin drug.”
- Integrative medicine got a boost from a 1993 Harvard Medical School study that showed that one in three Americans had tried a therapy outside the realm of conventional medicine.
- In the past decade, integrative medicine centers have opened across the country. According to a 2008 survey, more than 37 percent of responding hospitals said they offer one or more complementary therapies, up from 8 percent in 1998.
- Surveys indicate that 60 percent of standard medical schools, 95 percent of osteopathic medical schools and 84 percent of nursing schools teach some form of complementary medicine. Source: American Hospital Association