More people than ever are looking for high quality functional medicine practitioners. And it’s no wonder — the benefits of a whole-person, functional medicine approach to wellness is more evident than ever.
Modern medicine that you will find in a hospital has failed so many over the years. Conventional medicine is great in the emergency room, but functional medicine (combining traditional folk medicine with cutting edge 21st century research) treats the patient as a whole person, not a collection of individual, unconnected organs.
I don’t generally say “folk medicine,” as I see it as “wisdom medicine,” utilizing every single tool in our belt to make sure each patient lives a healthier life.
Functional medicine providers often enter the field because of their own disappointing experiences with conventional medicine. My patients say their functional practitioners have been more sympathetic and respectful towards them than our conventional counterparts.
What is functional medicine?
Functional medicine (FM) is a research-based, whole-person approach to your health.
How is FM different from conventional medicine?
- FM treats underlying causes of diseases, instead of symptoms.
- FM caters to each individual, and doesn’t just “work well enough” for the largest number of people.
- FM treats the whole body, and doesn’t divide the body into a dozen unrelated systems.
- FM is preventative, not reactive.
- FM treats the mind, body, and spirit.
- FM uses the latest 21st century research, and doesn’t wait on pharmaceutical companies to approve the most profitable option.
A functional medicine approach recognizes the importance of dietary, social, spiritual, and lifestyle changes on a patient’s overall health.
Does insurance cover functional medicine?
There is, unfortunately, no comprehensive functional healthcare insurance plan. Your best bet is finding the best fit for your situation. If a provider taking insurance is important to you, then do your research and see if you can find a provider who accepts insurance.
If you are not able to find a provider who resonates with you, then check into practices that offer a concierge medicine (membership) model or inquire about other options they may offer.
Some insurance plans cover visits to a nutritionist.
Out of pocket costs include most everything else, like specialized lab tests and dietary supplements.
Many functional medicine providers (including myself and other well known providers such as Dr. Mark Hyman) do not accept insurance. These clinicians will provide a type of detailed receipt known as a superbill, and you can file this with your insurance carrier.
More often than not, insurance companies will cover basic costs, like lab tests that a conventional doctor may have administered anyway. This can lower the cost of your visit by hundreds — possibly even thousands — of dollars. I support anything that can lower the threshold of entry for people wondering if they should try functional medicine.
The important thing is to understand what your provider offers and what may or may not be covered by insurance ahead of time so you know what to expect.
Differences Between Functional, Holistic, Naturopathic & Integrative Medicine
Several terms are pretty similar to one another: functional, holistic, naturopathic, and integrative. Although these terms can be used almost interchangeably, let me take you through what each of these really mean.
What is the difference between integrative, functional, and holistic medicine?
- Integrative — This is the integration of complementary and alternative medicine practices with conventional medicine, using many modalities..
- Functional — Functional medicine is integrative and holistic and functional medicine providers do what works using a systems biology approach to health care. They look upstream to a root cause and address this. This involves functional testing, cutting-edge science, and treatment plans including prescriptions for dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as evidence based herbal and alternative therapies. A functional practitioner may also prescribe vitamin therapy and even pharmaceuticals, but more conservatively. Additionally functional medicine is rooted in patient centered care that considers and addresses the full range of mental, emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and environmental influences that affect a person's health.
- Holistic — “Holistic” means treating the whole person and root causes, instead of just the superficial symptoms. This is frequently used interchangeably with “naturopathic” medicine and avoids drug therapy.
- Naturopathic — Doctors of naturopathy are the most different. Naturopaths only use all-natural methods of treatment, no drugs whatsoever. Many naturopathic doctors aren’t able to prescribe medications and come from different specialties, like chiropractic care or nutrition.
- Alternative — The term “alternative medicine” emphasizes how it is different from conventional medicine. This appeals to people whom conventional medicine has particularly failed. Alternative medicine can also be an overall term encompassing all the above terms, though it’s used most often to refer to folk or herbal remedies with little to no emphasis on drug therapy.
What qualifications should your functional medicine provider have?
Just because someone calls themselves a functional medicine doctor, doesn’t mean they have the right qualifications.
Here are some certifications to look for in your functional medicine practitioner:
- N.P. is a nurse practitioner, licensed to operate their own practices and prescribe medication. Patients under NPs experience higher overall satisfaction and fewer unnecessary ER visits.
- D.O. stands for doctor of osteopathic medicine. These doctors treat the whole person and are often general practitioners. A D.O. goes to medical school and completes almost identical requirements as an M.D.
- N.D. is a doctor of naturopathy. They focus entirely on all-natural treatments and can’t prescribe pharmaceuticals.
- D.C. is a doctor of chiropractic. Chiropractors obviously correct spinal alignment but can also practice integrative medical care.
- R.D. stands for “registered dietician,” which means they specialize in nutritional counseling.
- M.D. is a medical doctor who completed medical school. They are also qualified to treat the whole body but frequently specialize.
- P.A. means “physician assistant” or “physician associate” (in the UK). Like nurse practitioners, P.A.s are independently licensed healthcare providers and can diagnose and prescribe medication as necessary. They operate with physician supervision in most cases.
Other qualities you can look for in functional medicine practitioners:
- Focuses on diet and lifestyle adjustments — Cutting out food allergens
- Prefers natural treatments when possible — Dietary supplements and all-natural treatments should take precedence over drugs or conventional procedures.
- Emphasizes partnership with patient — While conventional doctors spend about 15 minutes with new patients, functional doctors should spend an hour or more with new patients, to determine a fuller picture of the patient’s health. Also, plotting out treatment plans should include the patient. You should feel unjudged.
Functional medicine providers may have received additional qualifications in addition to their educational certifications. The most common of these are The Institute for Functional Medicine and American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M).
Finally, here are some red flags to look out for:
- If they order overly expensive testing or overpriced supplements without explaining the “why” behind these methods
- If they don’t make diet and nutrition a priority
- If they don’t consider your microbiome important to optimal health
- If they recommend health treatments that may have dangerous side effects
- If they make huge promises, such as cure-alls or guaranteed results
- If they cause you discomfort, or arent invested in listening to you and your experience
Finding a Functional Medicine Provider
You can often find a functional medicine provider within an hour of where you live — less if you live near a large city.
A simple Google search may do the trick. Googling “functional provider for chronic disease” or “integrative physician for autoimmune disease” or even “functional medicine near me” may yield useful results.
Sites such as CareDash or ZocDoc provide access to patient reviews, delving deeper than a Google search may be able to.
Online databases to search for functional medicine practitioners include:
Testing, Genetics, and Bioindividual Medicine
Think of this like a prep sheet for your first trip to an integrative medical practice.
At an appointment with a functional medicine practitioner, expect:
- More laboratory testing than a conventional doctor would order, to establish a fuller picture of the patient’s overall health, such as genetic testing or heavy metal toxin exposure tests
- Extensive family medical history is used to assess larger issues — for example, a functional medicine physician might ask about a family history of mental health problems when diagnosing your gut health
- Counseling on diet and lifestyle factors, such as sleep quality, stress management, or exercise therapy
- Social, spiritual, or mental practices may be “prescribed” to influence your body’s health
- Dietary supplements instead of prescription drugs
- Discussions about things like stealth pathogens, leaky gut syndrome, and other conditions that conventional doctors seldom consider
- Appointments with functional medicine providers are individualized for each unique patient. A patient with fibromyalgia should have a different experience than a patient with heart disease. Either way, a functional medicine practitioner should treat each patient uniquely and respectfully.
- What does a functional medicine practitioner do? The functional practice of medicine involves less invasive, more natural treatments, diet and lifestyle changes, and cutting edge 21st century research to treat the whole patient and prevent future ailments. Functional providers may order in-depth lab testing to establish a full picture of a patient’s health, and they should consider current, evidence-based ideas and etiologies not commonly considered, like stealth pathogens and leaky gut.
- Does insurance cover functional medicine? Most insurance plans do not cover functional medicine. However, many insurance companies will cover parts of your visit to a functional medicine provider, such as common laboratory testing. Many functional providers don’t take insurance.
- What qualifications should your functional practitioner have? A functional provider should have a certification/education (such as N.P, P.A., M.D., or D.O.). They should have additional education and or certifications in functional medicine and focus on diet and lifestyle over prescriptions and emphasize a partnership with their patient.
- How do you find a functional provider? If a Google search doesn’t work, use databases like The Institute for Functional Medicine, A4M, Re-Find Health, or Naturopathic Physicians.
- How can you become a functional medicine provider? Utilize resources like The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) or this Cleveland Clinic link if you’re interested in becoming a functional clinician.