December 23

The Benefits and Risks of Integrative Medicine

What you should know before you get started

More and more, new areas of medicine continue to gain popularity where these approaches to medicine were previously considered taboo or unconventional.  What’s more, in recent years, we’ve seen alternative therapies move into the conventional medicine realm along with interest in research to further explore these alternative medical practices.  One such approach to medicine that has gained increased interest is integrative medicine.  While integrative medicine is a newer modality, born out of the need to address the many concerns over modern (Western) medicine, people seem to recognize the inherent value of integrative medicine.  According to a 2020 systematic review, the number one reason people are turning to integrative medicine is the benefits patients feel they will gain.  However, because people are not quite as familiar with integrative medicine as they are with conventional medicine, many do not know all there is to know about the benefits and risks of integrative medicine.  So, in this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of integrative medicine (IM). 

doctor holding patient hand
Female patient listening to doctor in medical office.

What is integrative medicine?

Before we jump into the benefits and risks of IM, let’s first review what integrative medicine is.  As with alternative and functional medicine, integrative medicine is a term that many people will often mix up. Quite often, many will use the names of these three medical approaches interchangeably when they are not actually the same.  Integrative medicine is a medical approach that combines two approaches to medicine:

  • Conventional medicine: a medical modality that trains providers to identify a set of symptoms and correlate these symptoms with the organ system(s) likely inflicted and then prescribe medications and surgeries to address the malady. 
  •  Complementary therapies: an approach to health that utilizes non-traditional interventions, such as acupuncture and herbal supplements, to optimize a patient’s life

Using the same evidence-based medicine that conventional medicine uses, integrative medicine goes one step further to also consider how a person’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs impact health.  Since integrative medical providers also study and practice conventional medicine, there may be situations in which the provider feels medications or procedures are indicated; however, this option is often not the first-line treatment preferred by most integrative doctors. 

When it thinking of where you can receive IM, many primary care providers will collaborate with integrative providers to ensure you are receiving holistic care.  Although, more and more, it is possible to find primary care-focused integrative medicine doctors, such as Dr. Jyothi Rao-Mahadevia.  But what are the benefits and risks of integrative medicine, and is it worth switching from conventional medicine to integrative?

Dr. Jyothi Rao portrait

Benefits and Risks of Integrative Medicine

Like the two sides of a coin, every aspect of medicine has its benefits and risks.  Integrative medicine is no different, and while, many feel that the stakes are often not quite as high with IM, it is still important for patients to know what they are getting into.  So let’s review the benefits and risks of integrative medicine. 

Benefits of integrative medicine

To review the pros and cons of integrative medicine (IM), we will start by looking at the benefits that many patients gain when they decide on IM. 

Individualized care

Because IM is often delivered in a direct primary care setting versus a traditional primary care model, patients can expect to receive personalized care.  Of course, when considering the conventional medical model, providers try to deliver as personalized care as possible; however, with restrictions from time constraints and insurance payments, this personalized care isn’t always possible.  In a direct primary care model, providers can spend the time to truly understand their patient’s needs and concerns.

Care that promotes health and prevents illness

Integrative medicine focuses on the patient as a whole, which means providers consider every aspect of health, from mind, body, and spirit.  With this focus on wellness, IM promotes health rather than seeking to simply mask how our bodies are trying to tell us it needs help.  What’s more, since IM centers on health promotion, it naturally also works to prevent illness, or dis-ease. 

Centers on the relationship between doctor and patient

The pinnacle of integrative medicine is the relationship between the patient and the doctor.  While the doctor knows how integrative medicine can help the patient, it is equally essential that the patient is fully committed to their personalized healthcare plan.  And this fact is seen in the evidence.  In a 2018 systematic review, researchers found that the quality of care improved the more the patient was engaged. 

Increased patient satisfaction

Since the patient is a crucial player in the integrative medical model, as highlighted above, patients have an increased sense of satisfaction as doctors empower them to make the necessary changes needed to improve their health.  Not only this, they also have better treatment outcomes as a result.  So, it’s a win-win situation.  

Improved emotional and mental well-being

Lastly, patients also benefit from improved emotional and mental well-being.  Whether this improvement results from more control over one’s health and care or the fact that integrative medicine is not as quick to attribute physical symptoms of mental health concerns to physical causes, a 2018 review identified improved emotional and mental well-being as just one of the many benefits of integrative medicine.

Risks of Integrative Medicine

Now, let’s explore the risks involved in integrative medicine. 

Potential adverse effects of supplements and other treatments

As with any medical treatment or procedure, there is potential for adverse effects.  Adverse effects are any harmful or unusual results from a medication or exposure to a particular substance.  Adverse effects are different from side effects in that adverse effects are unexpected and generally negative.  However, due to differences between our genetic makeup and bodies, one person may have adverse effects while the next does not. 

Side effects of conventional and non-traditional medicine

Another risk to consider with integrative medicine is the potential for side effects.  As briefly highlighted above, side effects differ from adverse effects.  Side effects, while sometimes unpleasant, can also be beneficial and are known and possibly expected.  But, how are side effects known ahead of time? Well, throughout the formulation and testing phase of a new medication, pharmaceutical companies discover side effects of a medication, and therefore have to include these in the medication literature.  However, as with adverse effects, one person may have a side effect while another does not. 

Interference of complementary therapies with other medical care

Just as there is potential for adverse and side effects, there is also the possibility that two treatments interfere with one another  While your integrative doctor is knowledgeable about the potential interactions, it is always wise to consult your primary care physician as well (if this is a separate provider) before you start any new treatments.  And, of course, make sure you follow up with any concerns you may have after starting a new medication or treatment.

Lack of research and testing on many complementary therapies

Lastly, as noted in our article, Alternative versus Traditional Medicine: Answering All Your Questions, while researchers have reviewed and studied many holistic therapies, many have yet to be studied.  Because there has been a push in recent years to explore complementary therapy and medicine further, research has continued to explore many complementary treatments, such as yoga and acupuncture; however, the hope is that as we go on, researchers will continue to research and bring to light how powerful and beneficial other forms of medicine and therapy are..

A wooden post displaying the components of integrative medicine
BODY MIND SOUL SPIRIT YOU text on wooden signpost outdoors by the beach at sunset

Get Started With Shakthi Health and Wellness

In closing, integrative medicine is just one of many newer medical approaches that have come about as people were looking for an alternative to traditional Western medicine.  While integrative medicine is the pairing of Western medicine with complementary medicine, many providers prefer to use the lower risk treatment options of complementary therapies.  Although a huge bonus to integrative medicine is that traditonal medical options are also available. In this article, we reviewed the benefits and risks of integrative medicine. 

As noted earlier, many people turn to integrative medicine based on the prospective benefits.  And, it is these benefits that drew Dr. Rao-Mahadevia to care for her patients through integrative medicine.  While there is a time and place for conventional medicine, integrative medicine offers patients the chance to restore their health with minimally-invasive lower-risk treatment options.  If you live in the Mt. Airy or Elkridge area of Maryland and are interested in integrative medicine, give us a call at (301)703-5067

Sources:

Potential factors that influence usage of complementary and alternative medicine worldwide: a systematic review | BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

Engaging patients to improve quality of care: a systematic review – PMC (nih.gov)

Integrative Medicine as a Vital Component of Patient Care – PMC (nih.gov)

Integrative Medicine: What Is It, Types, Risks & Benefits (clevelandclinic.org)

Integrative Medicine: What Is It, Types & Benefits | Fullscript

Integrative Medicine Benefits | ABPS (abpsus.org)

Integrative Medicine: A Complete Guide and Comparison (healthgrades.com)


Tags

alternative medicine, Holistic Health, integrative medicine


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