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What Is Integrative Health? A New Paradigm for Healing

Integrative health is an individualized model of promoting wellness that uses evidence-based strategies to reduce disease risk by adjusting lifestyle behaviors.

Meg Jordan, Ph.D., RN, CWP, ACC January 1, 2016

What Is Integrative Health?

Integrative health is an individualized, client-centered model of promoting optimal health and wellness, combining a whole person approach with evidence-based strategies to reduce disease risk by turning around lifestyle behaviors.

Traditionally, the term integrative medicine is defined as the blending of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) methods together with mainstream or allopathic medicine. There are integrative medicine centers that no longer use that definition since many leading authors insist that good medicine is medicine that works—no matter if the source is conventional, complementary, or alternative. Therefore, there has been a trend to use the term integrative health which encompasses the wider systems in place that affect health and illness, including familial, occupational, societal, and ecological.

Integrative health relies upon evidence-based, safe, and effective medicines and healing approaches, along with valid principles of lifestyle or preventive medicine from a variety of traditions. As conventional medicine attempts to assist people with chronic ailments, it is often at its limits if drugs or more invasive, costly interventions fail to produce desired results, or if patients cannot tolerate side effects. This is where integrative health can usher in more choices that may not all have the same level of scientific evidence, but are useful in bringing about healthful outcomes. Generally, integrative health choices follow a continuum, starting with self-initiated care and behavior change, moving to gentlest interventions, and finally, to more invasive as a last resort.

The burgeoning field of integrative health pulls together collaborative practice and draws fresh thinking and solutions from a world of healing options, including a broad understanding of whole healing systems such as naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Integrative health invites collaboration among professionals employing health-enhancing approaches for nutrition, diet, targeted supplementation, fitness and exercise, stress management, behavior change, health coaching and yoga therapy. It may involve indigenous healing and folk medicine practitioners. The cutting-edge approaches of Functional Medicine and Personalized Lifestyle Medicine are also part of comprehensive integrative healthcare.

Just as wisdom traditions assure us that crisis gives rise to opportunity, the emergence of integrative health arrives as a healing balm for a costly and fragmented health care system in need of reform. However integrative health seems to heal more than an ailing system, it also seems to heal the healers themselves, as epistemological divides are reconciled among CAM practitioners and conventionally educated practitioners. It is no wonder that integrative health continues to attract more clients as a preferred route of recovery from illness and relief from stressful lives. The out-of-pocket expenditures for integrative healthcare now exceed those of mainstream medicine.

The goal of the Integrative Health Studies program at CIIS is to create leaders within health care that bring the principles and goals of integrative health to people everywhere, thereby transforming health care itself, and facilitating optimal well-being for self and others.

What About Evidence?

Only about 60% of conventional medicine is evidence-based; most of it is based on accepted protocols and historical practice. Likewise, not everything that is natural (as in herbs, botanicals, potions) is safe or effective. The test for safety was traditionally earned through centuries of historical usage, until more recent clinical trials mounted increasing evidence of many complementary and alternative healing remedies.

The following Six Principles of Integrative Health are taught within CIIS' online Master of Arts in Integrative Health Studies degree program.

  1. Integrative Health rests on a foundation of a unified whole (hale, original Latin for wholeness or health)
    • Mind is restored to body; spirit to matter; and subjective without objective ways of knowing are acknowledged and valued. Integrative health practitioners combine ancient wisdom with modern science, modalities from around the world, and individual responsibility within cultural support.
  2. Integrative Health requires respectful collaboration among multiple disciplines
    • Integrative health practitioners restore a time-honored canon of supportive therapeutic relationships, deep levels of collaboration with other practitioners. Research by faculty at the CIIS M.A. Program involves multidisciplinary healing circles that benefit persons with long-standing chronic ailments.
  3. Integrative Health is client-centered, and holds the client to be ultimately resourceful, whole, and having a narrative that is central to healing
    • The clients’ narratives inspire a commitment among integrative health practitioners to keep client needs and stories central and directive to their process of healing and recovery. Shared decision-making and co-created wellness visions are products of keeping the client at the center of the healing journey.
  4. Integrative Health seeks to restore the dynamic balance of a living system
    • Dynamic balance is the fluid state of the self-organizing, self-correcting processes within the micro-/macro-cellular, biochemical, neuroendocrine, musculoskeletal and hemodynamic systems of the body interacting with its environment. Integrative health honors the intrinsic healing capacity within all living organisms, and acknowledges how that capacity requires interpersonal, societal and ecological cooperation.
  5. Integrative Health seeks to accomplish the “triple aim” of the Institutes of Medicine: quality improvement, cost containment, and improved health outcomes within healthcare systems
    • Integrative Health is preventive and pro-active. Practitioners are able to refer to reliable sources of information, and seek first to do the least invasive, least costly form of intervention.
  6. Integrative Health honors health equity
    • Integrative health is built on a foundation of advocacy for multicultural perspectives, cultural sensitivity, social justice, and health equity. Core values include fair access, empowered decision-making, client-centered care, and affordability. These values are upheld by integrative health practitioners.

Learn more about the Integrative Health Master's Program.

Reprinted with permission from “The Healing Circle: An Ethnographic Study of Integrative Medicine”

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