When I went to my first meeting of the Integrative Health Student Interest Group last fall at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, I’ll admit I was a little skeptical. Coming from a background of working in community/public health, I was drawn to the prospect of learning more about incorporating lifestyle changes into medical practice, but I was uncertain about some of the other aspects of Integrative Health. Aspects, that I, like others, felt might be a little too “out there” for me. Some of the words group leaders wrote on the board during the first meeting I attended were familiar to me – nutrition, massage, acupuncture – while others were totally foreign – for example, Ayurveda, healing touch, and biofeedback. It’s taken me over a year to get a better sense of what Integrative Health is, and even now I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface. In an effort to help others who may be just as confused as I was, Integrative Health can be thought of as a comprehensive approach to health and well-being. It includes an emphasis on environmental and lifestyle factors and use of all appropriate evidence-informed therapies, both Eastern and Western. Integrative Health also focuses on patients’ health goals and preferences, and requires strong interprofessional communication and teamwork.
No longer is Integrative Health a field of “quackery.” With the establishment of the National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health through the National Institutes of Health in 1998, research to establish the safety and efficacy of many integrative modalities has flourished. Modalities such as acupuncture, massage, and mindfulness have a fast-growing evidence base that suggests that they may be helpful complements in reducing common side effects of medications and procedures. One of the things I’ve heard over and over again from patients is the lack of preparedness they feel for what will happen after the surgery or once they are on the medication. While there are many ways these issues could be addressed, I believe Integrative Health may help to fill that gap and ensure that by working with the patient to adjust lifestyle and manage side effects, medicine is not as disruptive to a patient’s life.
As one of the leaders of the Integrative Health Student Interest Group, I hope to help others understand how Integrative Health can be useful for future health professionals. The Integrative Health SIG has a leadership team with representation from the medical school, physical therapy program, and both the graduate and undergraduate nursing programs in an effort to emphasize the interprofessional nature of Integrative Health. Our goal for this year’s recent Integrative Health Week was to expose health professions students to various aspects of Integrative Health. We specifically focused the week around familiar modalities such as nutrition, yoga, and massage. The hope was that those attending might realize that numerous aspects of Integrative Health aren’t completely “out there.” Often, they are relatively small tweaks to our daily routine that provide a whole lot of benefit. As such, we held talks on the role of nutrition in the hospital environment, how yoga can be incorporated into treatment plans, and hosted a workshop on hands-on massage therapy techniques for stress relief. The feedback that I received from the week has been encouraging! Many students were surprised at how accessible these options are, and many were amazed at the growing body of research behind integrative methods. Hopefully by having these conversations, Integrative Health can be something that more students consider in both their personal and professional lives.
Integrative Health is not grandiose medicine. It is medicine boiled down to its simplest form – listening to the patient and helping the mind, body, and environment work together as one. We must remember that it is not just the illness that we treat, but instead the whole patient that we serve. As healthcare moves toward a model where quality of life, wellness, and prevention are at the forefront, these aspects may become more and more important to our future roles as healthcare professionals.