Conventional Meets Alternative for Truly Wholistic Medicine
by Louise Gagné, MD
There is a new approach to healthcare emerging across North
America—it is called Integrative Medicine. Its concepts
are at once new and ancient. Practitioners of Integrative
Medicine aim to offer patients the best of both worlds, using
treatments from conventional and alternative medicine. This
is truly wholistic medicine that focuses on physical, emotional,
and spiritual wellness.
Integrative Medicine has developed in response to a growing
interest in complementary and alternative
therapies and an increasing awareness of the limitations
of conventional medicine. Growing numbers of people are using
nutritional therapies, homeopathy, acupuncture, and botanical
medicines. People use these therapies for many reasons—hoping
the therapies will have fewer side effects and be more effective
or less costly than conventional approaches. Perhaps most
importantly, many people also state that they seek out alternative
treatments because these therapies are more aligned with
their personal philosophy of health and healing.
The integrative approach involves a shift in the doctor-patient
relationship toward a trusting partnership, a different kind
of medical history, and an emphasis on healing the whole
person rather than focusing on disease symptoms. The treatment
is tailored to the individual and respects the patient’s
beliefs and cultural background. Above all, Integrative Medicine
emphasizes prevention of disease and enhancing the body’s
natural ability to heal.
So what happens at an Integrative Medicine consultation?
First of all, patients are asked about their goals for the
visit. They might also be invited to briefly describe the
story of their life or the story of their illness. A number
of open-ended questions are explored, such as: What do you
do to relax? What are the major stresses in your life? Do
you have any religious or spiritual practices that are important
to you? What brings meaning and purpose to your life? How
has your disease affected your life? Detailed information
is also gathered about past medical history, family history,
relationships, diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Patients
are asked to list all medicines, vitamins, supplements, herbs,
or homeopathic products they are taking. Once this information
is shared, the patient and physician begin to work together
on a healing plan.
Here are two examples that demonstrate an integrative approach
to medical care: Scenario #1—A man’s hand is
severed in an accident. Such an individual would greatly
benefit from immediate care by the best of the conventional
medical system. A team of surgeons would work for hours to
reattach his hand. Intravenous fluids, anesthetics, and antibiotics
would be given. In this situation, alternative medicine could
play an important supportive role. Acupuncture could be used
to help relieve pain and nausea. Guided imagery and nutritional
therapies might help to speed the healing process. Scenario
#2—A woman is disabled by the pain of osteoarthritis.
In this case, conventional medicine doesn’t offer a
dramatic cure and the usual therapies can have significant
risks. This patient might be advised to try an anti-inflammatory
diet, along with natural anti-inflammatory supplements and
botanical medicines. An elimination diet might be undertaken.
Mind/body techniques, such as journalling or meditation,
could be explored. Such an approach might allow the patient
to cut down on her use of arthritis medications and improve
her quality of life.
Until recently health care delivery has often been fragmented:
individuals obtain certain services from the conventional
medical system and obtain a separate set of services from
a variety of alternative health providers. Typically there
has been very little communication between these two worlds.
For instance, patients do not disclose information to their
doctor about the herbs they may be taking and doctors do
not ask. Doctors are generally not familiar with many natural
healing therapies. Integrative medicine allows physicians
to become familiar with current research in alternative medicine,
to build this training into their medical practice, and to
work collaboratively with other alternative health practitioners.
Centres such as the University of Arizona and Columbia
University in New York City, have led the way in the movement
medical training and change the way health care is delivered.
Specialized training is available now for physicians who
wish to study Integrative Medicine. The University of Arizona
was the first in North America to offer a two-year fellowship
program in Integrative Medicine, which has now trained over
120 physicians and several nurse practitioners. The program
offers in-depth training in nutrition, botanical medicine,
and mind/body medicine. Other areas of study include: motivational
interviewing and the role of culture, ceremony, and spirituality
in health. The program also provides an introduction to the
study of Traditional Chinese Medicine, homeopathy, and energy
The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine
has recently begun offering online learning modules in areas
such as nutrition and cardiovascular health, foundations
of botanical medicine, asthma, women’s health, and
depression. These modules are designed for health practitioners
but are accessible to all interested learners. The University
of Arizona and Columbia University also co-sponsor an annual
Nutrition and Health conference in Tucson, Arizona. This
conference has been wildly popular and is attended by a wide
cross-section of health care practitioners.
Many graduates from Integrative Medicine training programs
are now spearheading the development of integrative health
centres. These centres typically offer a wide range of
services including integrative medical assessments, nutritional
mind/body programs (such as guided imagery and meditation),
massage, acupuncture, energy medicine (such as Reiki),
and botanical medicine consultations. Medical schools are
slowly changing the way they are training new physicians.
Many schools are incorporating the teaching of alternative
and complementary therapies into their curricula.
I am excited about the coming together of the two worlds
of alternative and conventional medicine. Thirty years
ago I was living in the countryside and spending time
gathering and studying wild medicinal plants. Integrative
has now offered me the opportunity to return to my roots!
I am looking forward to further studies in this area.
An abridged version of this article was first printed in
the Spring, 2005 (Vol. 41, #1) issue of Focus—the
newsletter of the Saskatoon Community Clinic, and is hereby
with their permission.
Dr. Louise Gagné, a family
physician in Saskatoon, recently completed a two-year fellowship
in Integrative Medicine
from the University of Arizona, USA. She has a long-standing
interest in preventive medicine and natural healing therapies.
For more information about the University of Arizona’s
Program in Integrative Medicine please visit: http://integrativemedicine.arizona.edu and
for more information on Dr. Andrew Weil visit his website: