This is the Year of Integrative Health

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By Tabatha Parker, ND

Health, prevention, and medical care have dominated headlines for the past two years, with the pandemic spurring a hunger for answers and options that improve overall wellbeing and prevent serious illness. More than ever before, consumers are looking for ways to take charge of their health, and, as a result, the demand for holistic, complementary, integrative and alternative therapies is on the rise.

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Currently nearly 40 percent of Americans are turning to alternative treatments for their health concerns, including nutritional supplements, chiropractic care and meditation. As consumers become increasingly interested in taking a holistic approach to their health, the industry is poised to see exponential growth. This personal health prioritization is evident in consumer spending as the global health and wellness market is expected to grow by 6 percent annually, surpassing $25 trillion in revenue by 2025.

For decades holistic therapies have taken a backseat to allopathic medicine, but the tide is shifting as consumers demand a seamless, integrative approach to whole-person care. Fortunately, many of the nation’s most forward-thinking healthcare organizations and physicians have begun recognizing the health and wellness benefits and bottom-line value of this approach.

The shift is happening at the individual provider level as well as within some of the industry’s most prestigious and influential institutions. A 2020 survey revealed that more than half of U.S. physicians have recommended at least one complementary or alternative therapy to their patients. Every year thousands of traditional physicians formalize their understanding of holistic approaches by completing integrative health and medicine fellowships. Once certified in integrative health and medicine, physicians can offer their patients access to a range of treatment options that reflect each individual’s lifestyle, goals and preferences. 

From University of Miami on the east coast to University of California Irvine on the west, some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious medical schools have added tracks dedicated to natural healing while the number of schools focused exclusively on integrative health and medicine continues to expand. The number of medical schools dedicated exclusively to the practice of integrative medicine is also on rise, like the Whole Health School of Medicine and Sciences recently founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton in Bentonville, Ark.

Along with the increase in education and training programs focused on integrative health and medicine, there is a growing body of research into the efficacy of natural treatments. This gives practitioners the confidence of drawing from evidence-based practices as they develop patient treatment recommendations and plans.

Some of the nation’s most progressive hospitals and health systems have been offering holistic therapies for decades as they recognize patients want alternative modalities that are less invasive, often less expensive, have fewer side effects, and can augment conventional treatments. Leaders within such prestigious hospitals and health systems as Johns Hopkins, Duke Health and Stanford Health Care, among others, have discovered the bottom-line benefits of utilizing evidence-based integrative medicine options. The Cleveland Clinic, as an example, lists among its services: acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, chiropractic services, culinary medicine, holistic psychotherapy, massage therapy, nutrition, Reiki, and yoga. 

Forward-looking health insurance companies are already covering the costs of such treatments as acupuncture, chiropractic therapy and massage. They have discovered the value in allowing members to take a truly integrative, whole-person approach to their health, which benefits the patient, as well as the healthcare industry in the form of cost-savings. In a 2018 study, complementary and alternative medicine users had a lower average expenditure than non-users over a one-year period. 

Health coverage for holistic care is central to ensuring consumers have the option of choosing the therapies that are right for them. In fact, 66% of Americans want health insurance companies to cover alternative therapies. Without coverage for such treatments, patients may go without, leading to lower patient satisfaction and ultimately higher costs of care.   

The time is now to make integrative health an integral component of modern medicine. That’s why the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) has declared 2022 the Year of Integrative Health. We envision a day when it is no longer acceptable to treat illness using mainstream modalities alone, but rather a synergistic approach that integrates conventional medicine with therapies that take into account each individual’s mind, body and spirit. Integrative health brings together traditional and alternative therapies in a coordinated and complementary way. Let’s make this the norm.

Tabatha Parker, ND, is executive director of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine. aihm.org

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