This is one of those questions that comes up pretty regularly, so I decided it was time to put an answer down on “paper”. The interesting thing is that this is a question I am asked by the general public and potential patients, but also by my professional colleagues. In fact, I even have a few brave friends and family members who have asked a few times and continue to ask me about what I do at work and why integrative medicine. And I am happy that so many people ask…
There is a lot of talk these days about finding your “tribe” – that group of people with whom we surround ourselves who speak the same values, hopes, joys. These are the folks that just get you. Definitely one of those “you know it when you see it” kinds of experiences. Much of my answer about integrative medicine comes back to that tribe concept.
Before medical school I was a health educator. It suited that time in my life – you know, that time for many of us when we want to Change The World. I was teaching individuals, kids and groups how to improve their health, the importance of washing your hands and how to improve diabetes through nutrition. I was writing community programs and implementing them. It was amazing. One of the highlights was interacting with the community and learning as much from them as I hoped they were learning from me. This particular community happened to be in rural eastern North Carolina and the cultural influences on diet and disease conceptualization were significant and vastly different than what I identified as my norm. It was folk medicine and botanicals. It was hot foods and cold foods (labels for food qualities, not actual temperature) for sweet blood. My internal picture of health and healing changed from what we generally accept as conventional medicine to more of an individual responsibility and control model during that time.
When it came time to apply to medical school, I recall my dad saying I needed to look into osteopathic medical school because it seemed to better suit my approach to medicine and healing. We are from the Midwest where he had worked in osteopathic hospitals early in his nursing career and the interdisciplinary respect and teamwork made a big impact on him. I asked him recently what it was that motivated his suggestion for osteopathic medical school: “You put your heart into caring for people,” he said. In osteopathic medicine, I found a group of physicians and educators who fully embraced the concept that the body will, itself, maintain a state of health if we help facilitate physical, mental and spiritual balance. All of the training was the same for osteopathic doctors (DOs) as for the medical doctors (MDs), but we also learned osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). OMM is a collection of hands on treatments practiced by some DOs. It is not chiropractic and it is not massage. It is uniquely osteopathic due, in part, to the training of the provider as a physician. I am both thankful and proud to be an osteopathic physician.
During my internship (the first year of practice after graduating from medical school) I, quite by accident, happened upon Preventive Medicine. None of my colleagues or attending physicians had ever heard of it but it sounded SO amazing! There was actually a medical specialty that focused on preventing disease and helping people stay healthy?! My attending physicians laughed at me, asking if I was going to put them out of work. It seems a silly question and the answer is irrelevant given the state of health in the US, right? Regardless, my answer really was “yes”. Preventive medicine has several subspecialties; I chose public health. Public health is population medicine. It is an interdisciplinary world comprised of a multitude of health-related areas including infectious disease control and prevention, chronic disease prevention, environmental health, primary care (usually a safety-net provider where it is still available), policy development, health education, etc. Including my residency training, I was in public health for fourteen years. For the most part, I loved every day of my public health career. I left because, despite coaching others for almost twenty years on how to take care of themselves, I had not listened and applied the same knowledge to my own life. I was exhausted, disenchanted and cynical. I was having a hard time seeing how I was making any difference at all. I was burnt out. It was heartbreaking. So, I finally listened to my body and my heart and I left. And I walked into integrative medicine.
I cannot tell you how many times I found myself spooking around on the internet during my last years in public health searching “what do public health docs do if not public health”. There really are not a lot of results for that one. I recall looking at the pages for functional medicine and lifestyle medicine, trying to understand what they were and looking for something that complemented my preventive medicine and health education training. When I happened upon integrative medicine, I found it. “It”, quite simply, was a specialty that is the culmination of my training over the past 22 years: health education, traditional healing systems, nutrition and supplementation, the individual as the healer, the body’s own innate wisdom for maintenance and health, and the desire to get to the very core of a symptom or illness to find the actual cause instead of just managing the symptom. That may sound really complicated, but it comes down to this – I found my tribe in integrative medicine.
I also found another aspect of personal health that I had never really learned – self-care. Self-care has been made fun of a lot recently in part, I believe, because it is a skill and pursuit that has not been allowed in our hustle culture. Yet here was a medical specialty requiring active exploration and participation in self-care by the provider. This was an opportunity to learn for myself, and also to learn for others. Teaching something you learned from a book can be effective. Teaching something you have experienced firsthand and, if I may use the term, survived – there is power in that. It was more than permission to pay attention and take care of me…this was a foundational component to the integrative medicine framework for healing and healthcare.
OK, so back to the original question – why integrative medicine? Because I believe healthcare in the US is broken. I believe that it is so broken that it is hurting doctors, nurses and patients. I have found hope for myself, both personally and professionally, in integrative medicine and I feel an obligation to share that possibility and hope with others. Integrative medicine empowers individuals to take care of themselves, mind-body-spirit, in a way that prioritizes lifestyle and gentler treatments first. I am a highly trained and experienced partner in health, someone who is actively walking my own health journey, not the expert doctor dictating to the patient.
I ask my patients what makes life meaningful and about their health goals; that is how we develop a treatment plan. We may have emotional conversations and cry a few tears together. I refer to other providers who practice massage, acupuncture and Feldenkrais. I use osteopathic manipulative medicine. I use nutraceuticals and botanicals in my practice. Yes, I write for pharmaceuticals when they are needed. I discuss and recommend essential oils and herbal teas. I use evidence-based medicine. And I believe that a multitude of seemingly unrelated symptoms can be intimately related to each other – you only have to listen to the patient’s story with an open mind full of compassion and curiosity to find the root cause. Integrative medicine does not throw out conventional medicine; however, it is only one tool available to the physician and patient. And that is, in fact, the power of integrative medicine.
If you have any comments or other questions, meet me over on Facebook and ask away!