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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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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.

The Mind-Body Connection

Sternberg, a researcher who has done groundbreaking work on interactions between the brain and the immune system, says technological breakthroughs in science during the past decade have convinced even skeptics that the mind-body connection is real.

"Physicians and academic researchers finally have the science to understand the connection between the brain and the immune system, emotions and disease," she says. "All of that we can now finally understand in terms of sophisticated biology."

That newfound knowledge may help doctors to see why an integrative approach is important, she says.

"It's no longer considered fringe," Sternberg says. "Medical students are being taught to think in an integrated way about the patient, and ultimately, that will improve the management of illness at all levels."

The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, takes a similarly broad view of health and disease. The center, which includes a patient clinic, says on its web site: "Integrative medicine seeks to incorporate treatment options from conventional and alternative approaches, taking into account not only physical symptoms, but also psychological, social and spiritual aspects of health and illness."

To promote integrative medicine at the national level, the Osher Center and Duke have joined with 42 other academic medical centers -- including those at Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania -- to form the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine.

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