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Is integrative medicine legitimate?

doctor with arms crossed

We live in a time of deep skepticism, not just about medicine and our healthcare system, but about institutions in general. A lot of this skepticism is well-justified — even prudent.

As I continue to see patients with Dignity Integrative, I think it’s important to confront whatever skepticism there is about integrative medicine head-on. After all, integrative medicine is a relatively new specialty, so it’s only natural that there are a lot of questions.

In fact, when I did my residency training in emergency medicine in the early 90s, much of the medical community was still skeptical whether emergency medicine was really a legitimate specialty.

I will share a little of that history below, but the point is that new approaches to medicine can take a long time to prove themselves. This is entirely reasonable — after all, science itself takes time.

Integrative medicine now is not that different than emergency medicine was when I was in my residency training at Georgetown and George Washington Medical Centers in the early 90s. There is a growing body of knowledge that shows integrative medicine works, and growing acceptance of the approach by the boards and certification agencies which represent the medical community’s “official” stamp of approval.

So, is integrative medicine legitimate? The short answer is yes.

But let’s dive in a little more.

Legitimacy in medical specialties: ABMS vs. ABPS

It’s worth understanding for a moment how a medical specialty becomes a “real” specialty.

In the U.S., there are two main organizations that certify physicians in particular medical specialties. When you hear “Board Certified,” they mean certified by one of these two organizations. But the two don’t always agree which specialties are legitimate and which aren’t.

The American Board of Medical Specialties, or ABMS, is kind of viewed as the more traditional body. Meanwhile, the American Board of Physician Specialties, or ABPS, has often been ahead of its rival in recognizing newer specialties, and in more circumstances.

For instance, the ABPS was the first to offer certification to Doctors of Osteopathy, or DOs, whereas until recently the ABMS only certified MDs (DOs have also traditionally had the AOA for certification). Today, MDs and DOs are viewed as basically interchangeable — there are small differences in approach, but not enough for the general public to really care about.

Similarly, the ABPS offers emergency medicine certification to physicians, such as primary care physicians, who have already completed their residency in another specialty. But ABMS only certifies residency-trained emergency medicine physicians.

Emergency medicine — a real specialty

I graduated residency training in 1994. That was only 15 years after the American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM) had received specialty board approval, making it the 23rd medical specialty in the U.S.

As Robert Suter wrote in 2012 in the World Journal of Emergency Medicine, emergency medicine had to battle a lot of skepticism. In order to be recognized by the American Medical Association, Suter wrote, “early leaders needed to overcome arguments against the specialty, including that there was ‘no unique body of knowledge,’ ‘no research base,’ ‘you will steal our patients,’ and ‘we have too many specialties already.’”

Now, of course, there is a well-established body of knowledge and research base specific to emergency medicine. And actually: the same is true for integrative medicine.

The formation of the American Board of Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine has been around for a long time — but the effort to certify integrative medicine reached a major milestone in 2014 when the ABPS officially recognized the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM). I trained in integrative medicine at the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, which is located in San Diego, and was certified by ABOIM in 2015, the same year they announced the first board-certified integrative medicine physicians — 121 of them.

That was only six years ago, though, and opinions on whether integrative medicine is legitimate won’t change overnight. It took decades and generations for attitudes about emergency medicine to shift. So, I have confidence that integrative medicine will undergo a similar shift toward widespread acceptance.

I can already see it happening in the strong growth of integrative medicine training programs around the country, which reflects a growing recognition among physicians that the traditional ways of practicing medicine leave out some of the most important factors influencing our health. Physicians are also realizing like I did, that their residency left out some of the most critical elements of helping people live long and healthy lives.

I started Dignity Integrative to address those elements, namely: the food and drink we consume, the way we move and exercise, how we sleep, and how we care for our mental health. The science may have taken a while to get there (longer than our own common sense, in some cases!), but by now it’s widely accepted that nutrition, sleep, movement, and mental health are all absolutely critical for long-term health and longevity.

In other words: integrative medicine, which is a holistic approach to health that takes those underlying factors into account, is now very much in the mainstream of medical thought.

If you want to have a conversation about how our integrative approach can help address your long-term health and longevity, we offer a free 15-minute consultation.

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