Introduction to Integrative Medicine

I believe we are living in a time when we are witnessing the death of many old paradigms and the birth of new ones.   Healthcare in the U.S. is one of them.  Over the last 60 years there has been a dramatic shift from the country doctor who made house calls and the nurse who bathed patients to modern medical technology and the extensive use of computers cellphones.  Hospitals who used to be owned by churches and groups of doctors are now part of the big business world including a profit motive.

But since the 1970’s, there has also been a more subtle evolution of another movement in patient care.

Many healthcare providers who understand the value of compassion, touch, listening, and the importance of the self-empowered patient are forming practices that are not dependent on health insurance.

Many hospices and some hospitals have massage therapists on their staff.  More people are embracing forms of natural medicine, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, functional medicine, and health coaching.  And more people are interested in their health and self-care.

A number of medical institutions across the U.S.  are offering centers of Integrative Medicine.    These include Duke University, University of Miami, University of Michigan, Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic, Scripps Clinic, Maryland University of Integrative Health, and UCLA.  The University of Arizona offers a Center for Integrative Medicine as part of their College of Medicine.   The director is Dr. Andrew Weil.  Doctors and nurses come from all over the country to train on how to establish and run their own programs in integrative medicine.  Another prominent educator in integrative medicine is Dr. Mark Hyman who is the founder and director of the Integrative and Lifestyle Department of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

An interesting model of integrative medicine can also be found in the larger hospitals in China.  When Shang Kai-shek came into power in China in the 1940’s, he westernized China.  This included medicine.  Chinese doctors were sent to the U.S.  to learn, and American doctors when to China to teach.  When Mao Tse-tung took power in 1948, he brought back Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Both Western and Chinese medicine continue to be practiced together in their medical centers and institutions, such as the Guanzhou University Medical Hospital in the city of Guanzhou (formerly Canton.)   On the Western medicine wing patients are diagnosed with Western tests and treated with Western procedures, surgeries, and drugs.  On the Chinese medicine wing they are diagnosed in the traditional Chinese Medicine way of  reading the tongue, taking the pulse, and observation.   They are treated with acupuncture, massage, and Chinese herbal formulas.

The patient is allowed to choose which kind of medicine they are treated with unless a condition is urgent or life-threatening.  In that case, they are automatically sent to the Western wing.  When the crisis is over, they have the choice of being treated with Traditional Chinese Medicine for prevention, including instruction in qi gong or tai chi exercises.  They keep their own charts but are not given the choice of their doctor.

To me integrative medicine means using conventional medicine, natural medicine, and self-care appropriately.  That means knowing when and how to use each of them.

Conventional medicine offers us procedures, surgeries, and medications that are focused on fixing a problem.  Sometimes that means saving our lives!  We are blessed to have diagnostic procedures, such as MRI’s, CAT Scans, colonoscopies, DNA testing, etc.   Therapeutic procedures that ease conditions like injections for chronic back pain and headaches can be a godsend.   We have surgeries that can give us our sight back, such as cataract and retina surgery, surgeries that give us our movement back, such as knee, hip, and shoulder replacements, and organ transplants that can extend our lives.  We have medications for debilitating conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and intractable pain.  How blessed we are to live in a time of such amazing medical technology!

Natural medicine is focused on the belief that we are self-healing organisms.  This medicine is focused on stimulating and supporting our bodies to heal themselves.   To name a few, the chiropractor is an expert in the structure of the body.  The massage therapist focuses on the muscles.   The acupuncturist uses tools such as needles, herbal formulas, and cupping to balance the energy body and the physical body.  The naturopath and functional medicine practitioner determine how to balance and heal the body nutritionally.  The biofeedback and neurofeedback therapists facilitate balancing the brain.  The Life Coach takes an overall look at a person’s lifestyle and coaches their clients as they learn to make healthy changes in their lives.

Developing our own programs in self-care is extremely important. The less we practice our own self-care, the more we have to depend on help from the outside.  There are many philosophies about the many areas of our health, and each of us has to sort out what our unique needs and approaches are.  How we eat and exercise plays a huge part in our general sense of wellbeing.  Rest, sleep, and recreation also have an important impact on how we feel.  A meditation practice, spending time in nature, being part of community, being able to laugh, and having a sense of purpose is also important in our general health. There are many approaches available under the umbrella of natural medicine, such as energy healing, energy psychology, yoga, martial arts, hypnosis, and imagery.  All of these approaches to natural medicine and self-healing will be covered in more detail at a later time.

There is definitely a growing number of hospitals, clinics, and offices that offer an integrative approach to healthcare.  For those of us who live in an area where we may not have those yet, we have to piece together our own program for healing ourselves and staying healthy.

I see integrative medicine as being like an orchestra with the patient as the conductor.  There is one section of the orchestra housing the primary physician and specialists for necessary medical care.  Another section houses the practitioners of natural health such as acupuncturists and chiropractors.  There is another section that houses approaches in self–care.  The patient chooses when to use what.

Of course, the ideal is preventive medicine so it doesn’t become necessary to seek medical help.  Natural medicine, such as acupuncture and chiropractic, can certainly help us maintain good health.   But sometimes we need allopathic medical help for situations such as injuries, infections, and serious conditions.  Thank goodness we have allopathic medicine when we need it!


Bonnie McLean
Bonnie McLean
Dr. Bonnie McLean O.M.D, A.P. has been in practice for 36 years. A graduate of Duke University School of Nursing, she practiced nursing as an RN for 20 years before embarking on her studies in natural medicine, which included an MA in Counseling from Pepperdine University, a Doctorate in Oriental Medicine from California Acupuncture College, and training in energy medicine and shamanic healing. In addition to her holistic acupuncture practice, she is a writer and speaker. She is author of Integrative Medicine: The Return of the Soul to Healthcare, which can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Bonnie is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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