What’s the Difference Between Integrative, Functional, and Naturopathic Medicine?

Integrative Medicine is often talked about interchangeably with Functional Medicine or Naturopathic Medicine—it can get confusing. Medicine is “integrative” when it brings together diagnostic techniques and medical treatments, regardless of what tradition they come from, to support your health and healing.

At Link Community Clinic, our physicians are trained in naturopathic medicine, which is a distinct tradition with its own history and established set of principles. Naturopathic medicine often looks a lot like Integrative and Functional Medicine in its emphasis on lifestyle, prevention, and non-pharmaceutical therapies. These disciplines all typically address multiple health issues at the same time, with multiple techniques – for example, promoting exercise and mindfulness-based stress reduction in addition to medication for mental health concerns.

Medical approaches to Whole Person Health

As we discuss in our past blog on the subject, Whole Person Health involves looking at the whole person—not just a single disease or organ—and considering all the factors that influence one’s health. It requires recognizing not only how multiple systems of the body are connected, like the nervous system and the immune system, but also how one’s experiences, environment or habits influence those systems. Integrative, Functional, and Naturopathic medicine have all become distinctive professions with their own unique training programs and boards of certification. In practice, they can be very similar medical approaches to achieving Whole Person Health.

At our clinic, we don’t get too caught up in identity or philosophy. We just strive to put each person at the center of their own healthcare. Here’s how:

One’s medical care must be in line with their goals, values, and beliefs, which are almost impossible to assess in a typical 10–15-minute primary care visit. This is why we spend time to get to know our patients, empower them to take better care of themselves and their families/community, and make medical decisions together. Treatment also shouldn’t be detrimentally expensive or cause more harm than good. We pride ourselves on being the only naturopathic doctors in Pierce County who provide full primary care for people on Medicaid, and we’re very resourceful in seeking the right care for our patients.

How might this look for a patient at our clinic?

Consider someone needing help with chronic back pain. We take time to ask questions and get a thorough history—not just about the back pain, but about other things that relate to one’s overall health, e.g. diet, occupation, activity level, mental health. We perform as much or as little testing as is medically necessary, with an eye for prevention and identifying the root causes of an issue. We may discover the back pain is more prone to flare in times of stress or that certain foods cause more joint pain. The person may want to discuss trying acupuncture before medication for muscle spasms. We also may discover some underlying disease where more testing or referral to a specialist is needed.

Making Integrative Primary Care Accessible for all

Our process is to educate patients and help them feel empowered to make the best decision for them and their community. Unfortunately, a lot of providers that practice integrative or “holistic” medicine endorse tests that come with high out-of-pocket costs and do not help guide medical decision-making. These options should never take the place of a thorough workup, most of which is usually covered by insurance. (Do insurance companies fall short in taking care of people? All. The. Time. But that’s for another day.)

These providers may also recommend therapies that are very expensive and do not have well-established safety, especially when using them with other medications. Our providers stay updated on the scientific evidence and rationale for various supplements and when they’re worth using, or not worth it. We also recognize that not all disease can be prevented—sometimes you do everything right and still get sick. In these cases, we treat acute conditions as we’re able, and we refer to specialists when it’s necessary.

Whatever you label our type of medicine, it’s more satisfying for patients and providers alike. And everyone deserves this type of care.