What IS integrative care?

As medical care and services evolve, doctors are continually looking for new ways to treat their patients without increasing costs. One of these approaches to treatment is integrative care. 

So, what is integrative care? How does it work? And how can it help with various conditions? Which medical issues can it address? 

Read about integrative care and the answers to these questions:

What is Integrative Care?

Integrative care (also called integrative health, integrative healthcare, and integrative medicine) is a combination of the best conventional - i.e. Western medicine and complementary medicine. 

The University of Arizona’s Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine describes integrative medicine as “healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.”

The key points of the description:

  • Healing-oriented - it focuses on overall wellness as opposed to treating illness or injuries

  • Whole-person based - a person’s biological, behavioral, social, environmental needs are included

  • Emphasis on the relationship between patients and providers - communication between the individual, healthcare provider, and other staff is critical

  • Evidence-based - results and data from high-quality studies support the effectiveness and safety of the treatments 

What Do All of These Terms Mean?

It can be very confusing! Holistic . . . Alternative . . . Complementary . . . and so on. You’ve heard a variety of terms used to describe the practice of integrative care. Here’s what they mean and how they relate to integrative care.

Complementary and Alternative

Complementary therapies are outside of the scope of conventional medicine. They're considered complementary when used with or alongside conventional treatment.

Alternative therapies are also outside of the scope of conventional medicine. They're considered alternative when used without or instead of conventional treatment.

Other Related Terms

Comprehensive - means complete. It may be used to describe the whole-person component of integrative care.

Functional medicine - focuses on identifying and treating the root cause of the disease. It has a different focus than integrative care.

Holistic or whole-person based - this includes an individual’s biological, behavioral, social, and environmental needs. It is one characteristic of integrative care.

Multidisciplinary - refers to different fields of medicine. For example, someone hospitalized with COVID-19 might be under the care of primary care physicians, but also specialists in pulmonary (lungs) medicine, neurology (nervous system), cardiology (heart), infectious disease, physical therapy, etc. The person is receiving multidisciplinary care.

Multimodal - means several different ways or methods. In integrative care, it may be used to describe the aspects of care i.e. supplements and medicines, therapeutic exercise, mind-body techniques, and nutrition/diet.

How does Complementary  Care Compare to Conventional Care?

Integrative care is a combination of conventional and complementary care. 

What is Conventional Care?

Conventional care is also known as Western, modern, or mainstream medicine. It is one part of integrative care. It is usually based on the state of the patient, testing to gather information, a diagnosis, and treatment.

It is the type of medicine that is taught in most medical schools and generally practiced in the U.S. Generalists like internal medicine doctors, family practitioners, pediatricians (childrens’ doctors), nurses, dietitians, physical therapists, and pharmacists are trained to provide conventional care. 

Specialists like cardiologists (heart), orthopedists (bone), pulmonologists (lung), podiatrists (feet), chiropractors, etc. also have conventional training. Care is delivered based on well-studied treatments (e.g. medications, surgery, procedures, therapies, lifestyle changes, etc.). 

Note: Conventional care may also be called traditional care, however, the use of that term may cause issues and can be confusing. That’s because it usually refers to folk medicine based on traditional knowledge and information from different cultures and societies.

What is Complementary Care?

Complementary care refers to non-conventional treatments that are combined with conventional treatments. 

Note: Many complementary treatments may actually be considered conventional - it depends on the individuals’ point of view, geographic locations (e.g. urban vs. rural; East coast vs. Midwest, etc)   

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), describes complementary care according to the method of delivery. It may be through nutrition, mind-body techniques, hands-on therapies, and combinations of methods. For example:

What are Some Conditions that Benefit from an Integrative Care Approach?

There are a number of long-term (chronic) medical problems that are very common, but not necessarily serious. Goodpath offers integrative care for three of them: back and joint pain, trouble sleeping, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems.

What about Back and Joint Pain?

Musculoskeletal pain includes pain in the neck, lower back, hip, knee, ankle, etc. An integrative approach is effective in lessening pain for many people. 

Goodpath’s back and joint pain program provides coach-supported, integrative care that includes:

What about Sleep Problems?

Those who experience insomnia and other sleep problems often benefit from integrative care

Goodpath’s sleep program is integrative (it includes both conventional and complementary therapies) and may include:

Our Goodpath coaches provide support throughout your program.

What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other Digestive Conditions?

Studies of integrative care for irritable bowel syndrome have found it effective in lessening IBS symptoms. 

Goodpath’s digestive health program provides integrative care for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems. It’s guided by one of our coaches and focuses on:

What about Integrative Care for Long COVID?

Doctors are studying long COVID (or “long-haul COVID”), including how to best manage it. The symptoms vary, which makes it especially challenging. 

A person may have one main symptom or a combination of several. The symptoms range from mild to life-altering. 

Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, post-exertional malaise - PEM (feeling extremely fatigued), and brain fog (trouble with memory, concentration, and ability to pay attention). Others may be headache, back and joint pain, loss of taste and smell, nausea, trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, or cough. 

An integrative approach for those with long-haul COVID puts the person at the center of care and addresses all of their needs (physical, emotional, cognitive, etc.). It uses the best of conventional and complementary medicine. 

To optimize long COVID care, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a whole-person approach including exercise therapy, activity pacing, cognitive support, OTC medicines, and lifestyle changes for underlying conditions.

Goodpath’s Long COVID Program

Goodpath’s expertise in providing integrative care makes it possible to provide an integrative program for long-haul COVID. Depending on your symptoms, Goodpath’s long-haul COVID program may include:

  • Our Daily Activity Planner

  • Nutritional supplements and diet support

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines

  • Breathing exercises

  • Support for loss of taste/smell

  • Stress reduction with yoga, guided meditation, Long COVID journal

Our team of coaches provide support throughout your program. 

What About Other Acute or Chronic Conditions?

With an understanding of integrative care, you can see how it might be applied to any condition, whether it’s short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). 

Acute Conditions

Think about some of the common reasons you contact your doctor’s office or a nearby clinic to make an appointment. Maybe you have a headache or you feel stressed. 

Chronic Conditions

You may not think about an integrative plan for some of the more serious chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or other chronic conditions (or want to take steps to prevent them), an integrative plan can help. 

Diabetes and heart disease are often treated with prescription medication and lifestyle changes - i.e. conventional treatments. Complementary therapies like nutritional supplements, yoga, stress-reducing meditation, or spiritual healing may also be part of care. Together, they form an integrative way of treating serious chronic conditions.

What About Mental Health Problems?

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions benefit from integrative care, such as a combination of conventional treatment (prescription medication, counseling, lifestyle changes, etc.) and complementary therapies (mind-body, supplements, etc.).

Many complementary methods help with mental health conditions. There are mind-body techniques such as music therapy, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation that can help. Many nutritional supplements continue to be studied. Three showing particular effectiveness are St. John’s wort, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics.

What About Overall Medical Care?

An integrative approach might be used to deliver primary care. Imagine going to your physician for a preventive care check-up, or for a particular problem - i.e. an injury, back pain, or feeling overly tired. Could integrative medicine be effective regardless of the reason for your visit? 

The University of Arizona Integrative Health Center (UAIHC) tested this idea. They included mind-body techniques, dietary counseling, acupuncture, and health coaching to provide care. After a year, patients had significant improvements in quality of life, overall well-being, sleep quality, and other measures. Individuals who sought care for specific problems (e.g. pain and fatigue) had less pain and less tiredness. 

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