Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re well aware that there are some issues with healthcare in the United States. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’re dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, because Americans across the board are experiencing a health crisis. According to the CDC, “As of 2012, about half of all adults had one or more chronic health conditions… one in four adults had two or more chronic health conditions.”
Chronic illness—and its enormous corresponding cost—is literally killing us. The physical, emotional, psychological, and financial toll is tremendous, and traditional medicine is failing for a wide variety of reasons. For this reason, countless Americans are seeking alternatives to the traditional medical model, taking an interest in holistic medicine, integrative medicine, and functional medicine in lieu of visits to their primary care physician.
Despite what you may be thinking, these are not interchangeable terms for medical quackery; these are legitimate approaches to treatment that garner sometimes unbelievable results, all in distinct ways. It’s not hard to see why these terms could be easily confused, though, since all challenge the conventional, allopathic approach to medicine, which tends to rely on pharmaceutical agents to counter or suppress symptoms of illness.
Functional medicine is an alternative medicine, in that it emphasizes restoring the body’s natural function, a state of biochemical harmony indicative of wellness. According to The Institute for Functional Medicine, “functional medicine is a systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom of differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.”
To put it more simply, functional medicine focuses on what’s causing your health problems, not what medicine they can prescribe to mask your symptoms. Functional medicine doctors are prepared to cure chronic illness, not just make it more palatable. Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, explains:
“The vast majority of physicians practicing today are not familiar with the concept of functional medicine. Some may not take a truly comprehensive approach to the diagnosis and treatment of [chronic illness], or even be aware of the appropriate panel of tests. Others may not test you at all unless you have already progressed down the path of disease, and they then test and interpret results quite differently… many take a ‘wait and see approach,’ which can be dangerous and detrimental to your health.”
Make no mistake; functional medicine is not challenging allopathic medicine’s contributions to world health. Any functional medicine doctors worth their weight will agree that allopathic medicine saves lives and is an absolutely vital part of healthcare; when it comes to acute trauma, traditional medical interventions like drugs, vaccines, and antibiotics are critical components of care. The problem is that the new millennium has brought a dramatic shift in the kind of disease experienced by the population, with chronic conditions like diabetes, thyroid disorders, and autoimmune dysfunctions exponentially on the rise.
The traditional healthcare model is not equipped to treat these diseases because chronic illness is always the result of multiple factors, most of which cannot be addressed through pharmacological agents. Functional medicine, on the other hand, empowers the patient with a proactive approach to overall wellness, more comprehensively resolving the wide variety of causes that generate disease.
The differences between functional medicine and traditional medicine are clear:
- Functional medicine is health oriented; traditional medicine is disease oriented. Functional medicine prioritizes preventative care and a comprehensive, whole-body approach to wellness. Traditional medicine skews heavily toward a “wait and see” approach, requiring the presence of an measurable disease or disorder before intervention and assistance is offered.
- Functional medicine is patient-centered; traditional medicine is doctor-centered. Functional medicine doctors are your partners in wellness, committed to empowering patients with the knowledge and skills they need to take back control of their overall wellness. Traditional medicine, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the “expert” doctor’s ability to match disease or disorder with the appropriate pharmaceutical.
- Functional medicine focuses on biochemical individuality; traditional medicine treats every patient more or less the same way. Functional medicine is highly individualized, with doctors investing huge amounts of time in each case’s unique challenges and performing extraordinarily thorough testing. In contrast, traditional medicine tends to treat patients as their diagnosis, as if every diabetic faced the same obstacles or had the same disease causation.
- Functional medicine is preventative care; traditional medicine is grounded in early-detection. Functional medicine doctors would love for patients to start seeing them before their diseases progress to the point of desperation, because functional medicine is preventative care at its finest. Traditional medicine aspires to catch disease early enough to effectively treat it with medicine.
- Functional medicine seeks to address the root cause of illness; traditional medicine seeks to identify symptoms. While a traditional doctor looks at the symptom of uncontrolled blood sugars and sees a diagnosis of diabetes, a functional medicine doctor looks at the symptom of uncontrolled blood sugar and demands to know why those sugars are uncontrolled. “Diabetes” is not a cause, it’s a term that describes a certain set of symptoms. Functional medicine doctors want to do more than just identify your symptoms and prescribe medication to reduce their effects; they want to know what’s really wrong and work to correct it.
- Functional medicine is innovative; traditional medicine is high-tech. Sure, allopathic medicine is up-to-date when it comes to technology, science, and pharmacological chemistry, but traditional medicine is not truly innovating the healthcare industry. Functional medicine is, leading the way in cost-effective, private-pay health care and working with teams of graphic designers and social media experts to brand themselves and mass market their new approach to wellness to impact the greatest number of potential patients.
As more and more Americans face the consequences of chronic illness and confront the challenges created by an ineffective traditional treatment model, functional medicine will continue to gain traction and credibility as a legitimate alternative to conventional healthcare.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily shared by TNW.
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