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Integrative Medicine: How Far It Has Come

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Even 15 years ago, integrative medicine — using alternative health modalities to complement Western medicine — was pretty rare. Since then, blending many approaches to wellness into integrative medicine has become nearly mainstream.

Physician Kaushal Nanavati, board-certified in integrative medicine, assistant professor of family medicine and medical director of integrative therapy at Upstate University Hospital, has worked in medicine in Central New York for 23 years and has observed the shift. He brought integrative medicine to Upstate in 2011.

“More faculty are getting board-certified in integrative medicine,” Nanavati said of physicians at Upstate.

He believes that consumer demand for complementary health drives the trend. Once he became board-certified in integrative medicine, he said his patients seemed to feel freer to tell him about non-prescribed supplements and other things they were trying on their own to improve their health.

“A lot of times, conventional therapies alone don’t help people feel better,” Nanavati said. “Or conventional providers don’t have an answer. Many health issues come from inflammation or some root cause. Conventional medicines don’t reduce disease but tend to stabilize or reduce the progression of it.”

He advocates improving nutrition, physical activity, stress management and spiritual wellbeing to form the foundation for supporting good health, along with trying modalities that can promote these.

Nanavati said that even many conventional medicine physicians who don’t use these tools are beginning to refer patients to providers like himself — even other family doctors.

“We try to address root causality and get deeper into the history and context of the person’s life like their parental history, financial, spiritual, nutritional and more,” Nanavati said. “People are looking at the root causality to resolve their issues.”

Integrative medicine also tends to see more patients with complex medical issues who want to improve the quality of their lives instead of addressing symptoms with multiple medications. For this to happen, patients need a care provider who will partner with them on their journey toward good health. Nanavati views this perspective as a return to family medicine “the way it’s supposed to be,” he said.

Physician Az Tahir, who practices holistic integrative medicine at High Point Chiropractic Wellness in Syracuse, began his career in traditional medicine until he attended seminars featuring celebrity physician Andrew Weil. Weil promotes healthful eating, herbs, supplements and stress management to promote health. Tahir found that following the suggestions improved his health, including arthritis, blood pressure and weight.

“Integrative medicine is getting popular,” he said. “Even some prominent universities are getting branches on integrative approaches and functional medicine is widely accepted.”

Like Nanavait related, Tahir said that more patients now feel empowered to mention to their conventional doctors that they were using complementary medicine. He also knows more care providers involved with integrative health or who are at least willing to refer patients to those providing it.

Amber Gilbo, licensed massage therapist, reiki master and yoga instructor, owns Integrative Healing Spa in Oswego. She said she noticed an increase in referrals from medical doctors to her practice over the past decade. She even has a contract with the VA Medical Center, she said.

“There’s more awareness and education that therapy can help them,” Gilbo said. “It works on the root cause, not just treating symptoms.”

She thinks that continued education for traditional providers on the benefits of complementary medicine will help the growth of integrative medicine.

“We’re working to create a synergistic relationship with traditional medicine and wellness therapies,” she said.

She cited the VA as an example of making progress in adapting integrative medicine, including using acupuncture, massage therapy and chiropractic, all of which she said are “extremely beneficial.”