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The surging interest in functional medicine vs. integrative medicine

Since founding Dignity Integrative almost three years ago, I've always written about integrative medicine as being distinct but very close to functional medicine.

But in those years, something interesting has happened in the public's understanding. First, the popular meanings of the two have converged enough in their on-the-ground practice that the differences are essentially negligible.

And second: interest in functional medicine in particular has surged. Check out this chart in relative search volume from Google:

The red line is search volume on Google for functional medicine. The blue is integrative medicine. As you can see, integrative medicine used to be the more popular term—then, from around 2015 through 2020, the two were similar.

However, starting post-pandemic (you can see a large dip in searches for both terms in March and April 2020), functional medicine has started to really pull away in terms of its popularity.

What accounts for this popularity? I was curious myself.

Functional Medicine vs. Integrative Medicine: What's the Difference?

As someone who's navigated the tangled web of modern healthcare, I've often been confronted with this question. Both approaches have their merits and, indeed, they share many commonalities. Indeed, I think the differences matter less than they used to.

On our website (What is integrative health?), we write:

We don’t think the two are different enough to warrant separate definitions, although most articles on the subject describe a slightly different emphasis in approach: functional medicine focuses on root causes of symptoms and uses testing and various alternative approaches to address those; integrative medicine focuses on the health and wellbeing of the whole person, and then brings in testing and alternative therapies to also address root causes.

Essentially, the two are describing a very similar approach. In practice, the differences in approach between any two given integrative medicine practitioners are likely to be more consequential than the differences between an integrative vs. a functional medicine doctor.

The Pandemic Disruption

The drop in interest in integrative and functional medicine at the start of the pandemic can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the focus of healthcare systems shifted towards addressing the immediate and urgent needs of COVID-19 patients.

This led to a decrease in attention and resources allocated to other areas of medicine, including integrative and functional medicine. The pandemic created a sense of urgency and a need for specialized care, which may have overshadowed the interest in these alternative approaches to healthcare.

But, as evidenced by the Google Trends graph above, this was a momentary blip just before a dramatic rise.

As the situation stabilized and people adapted to the new normal, there has been an explosion of renewed interest in alternative approaches to healthcare.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of holistic and preventive care, which aligns with the principles of integrative and functional medicine.

Why the surge in interest in functional medicine?

Functional medicine has surged in popularity due to several factors, everything from increasing interest in natural and alternative therapies, to demand for more personalized, patient-centered care (often severely lacking in traditional settings).

More of us are more focused on ever on wellness over simply illness. Functional medicine takes into account a patient's lifestyle and environment, not just their physical symptoms. Nowadays, when a doctor suggests we treat the "whole person," more and more patients are on board. Indeed, many breathe a sigh of relief that there is potentially a partner with them on their long and difficult care journey.

Still, none of these factors explain why functional medicine has exploded in popularity relative to integrative medicine.

For that, I have another theory.

The Rise of Mark Hyman (and other functional medicine doctors)

As with trends in other areas of American life, they are often started or accelerated by a particularly famous practitioner—or a celebrity.

One such figure in the world of functional medicine is Dr. Mark Hyman. A renowned physician, leader, and bestselling author, Dr. Hyman has made significant contributions not only to enlightening people about the essence of functional medicine but also by playing an instrumental role in its increasing popularity.

Hyman is one of the most prominent proponents of functional medicine. He is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, which is a medical practice that applies the principles of functional medicine to patients with the goal of improving their health and well-being.

Hyman is also the Head of Strategy and Innovation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine.

He is an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of functional medicine and has authored several books on the subject—of course, his success would be associated with the rising popularity of functional medicine.

Of course, Dr. Hyman isn't the only popularizer of functional medicine. But even Google trends show a correlation between the two in terms of popularity. When Dr. Hyman's popularity spikes, so too does the popularity of functional medicine.

This doesn't mean patients should suddenly start looking for functional medicine practitioners. As I mentioned, the two are functionally the same at this point (pun intended). The more important thing is to find an integrative or functional medicine doctor who you feel comfortable with, and who is a true partner with you on your journey to better health and wellness.

If you want to learn more, Dignity Integrative offers free, 15-minute consultations to see if we would be a good match.

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