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What Is Integrative Medicine?

Experts explore new ways to treat the mind, body, and spirit -- all at the same time.
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WebMD Feature

At age 68, Martha McInnis has had her share of health woes: breast cancer, high cholesterol, clogged arteries, osteoporosis, and scoliosis -- curvature of the spine. Once a year she journeys from her home in Alabama to the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina where an internist, endocrinologist, and other specialists monitor her with blood tests, X-rays, bone scans, and other tests.

But McInnis knows that she's more than the sum of her illnesses. When her checkup ends, she heads for the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, where she has learned about nutrition, fitness, yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other practices she says have helped her to live better. "I became an avid tai chi person," she says. "I'm a type A personality. I knew I had to do something about my lifestyle. I had to bring myself down to a type B."

Many Americans have never heard of integrative medicine, but this holistic movement has left its imprint on many of the nation's hospitals, universities, and medical schools.

Treating the Whole Person

Both doctors and patients alike are bonding with the philosophy of integrative medicine and its whole-person approach -- designed to treat the person, not just the disease.

IM, as it's often called, depends on a partnership between the patient and the doctor, where the goal is to treat the mind, body, and spirit, all at the same time.

While some of the therapies used may be nonconventional, a guiding principle within integrative medicine is to use therapies that have some high-quality evidence to support them.

Conventional and Alternative Approaches

The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine is a classic model of integrative care. It combines conventional Western medicine with alternative or complementary treatments, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, yoga, and stress reduction techniques -- all in the effort to treat the whole person. Proponents prefer the term "complementary" to emphasize that such treatments are used with mainstream medicine, not as replacements or alternatives.

Integrative medicine got a boost of greater public awareness -- and funding -- after a landmark 1993 study. That study showed that one in three Americans had used an alternative therapy, often under the medical radar.

In the past decade, integrative medicine centers have opened across the country. According to the American Hospital Association, the percentage of U.S. hospitals that offer complementary therapies has more than doubled in less than a decade, from 8.6% in 1998 to almost 20% in 2004. Another 24% of hospitals said they planned to add complementary therapies in the future. Patients usually pay out of pocket, although some services -- such as nutritional counseling, chiropractic treatments, and biofeedback -- are more likely to be reimbursed by insurance.

The Appeal of Integrative Medicine

What makes integrative medicine appealing? Advocates point to deep dissatisfaction with a health care system that often leaves doctors feeling rushed and overwhelmed and patients feeling as if they're nothing more than diseased livers or damaged joints. Integrative medicine seems to promise more time, more attention, and a broader approach to healing -- one that is not based solely on the Western biomedical model, but also draws from other cultures.

"Patients want to be considered whole human beings in the context of their world," says Esther Sternberg, MD, a National Institutes of Health senior scientist and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

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