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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

Functional VS Western Medicine

I’ve wanted to write about Functional Medicine, as compared to what has evolved into the practice of Western Medicine, for a while and was spurred into action over the weekend by reading Dr Frank Lipman’s description of his Philosophy.

Frank Lipman, MD

This is part of how Lipman describes his approach to the practice of medicine: I believe in true health care I believe that health is more than merely the absence of disease. It is a total state of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social well-being. Western medicine is excellent for crisis care; for instance, when you break a bone, cannot breathe or are having a heart attack. But Western medicine is poor at preventing and treating chronic diseases like heart disease, arthritis or auto-immune diseases. It offers no tools to get and keep you healthy. We have the knowledge now to go beyond the current crisis care model and incorporate lifestyle medicine, nutrition, supplements and exercise to improve the functioning of organs as a means of preventing disease and creating vibrant, sustainable health. – Lipman (2010)

I Look For The Root Causes Of Disease Rather Than Suppress Symptoms

In conventional medicine, doctors are trained to suppress (or eliminate) symptoms. Although treating symptoms makes patients feel better temporarily, looking for the underlying cause is preferable. When you’re driving your car and the oil light goes on, you don’t put a Band-Aid over the oil light and drive on. You go to the mechanic to see why the oil light went on.

Symptoms should be seen the same way. When there is an imbalance in the system, your body sends you signals. Looking for the root cause, treating the underlying disturbance, and restoring balance are more important than simply treating the symptoms. When a plant is sick or not doing well, you don’t paint it green; you look at the soil, sun, water and nutrients. This is exactly how I see the body, and the new Functional Medicine model looks at disease and dysfunction the same way.

– Lipman (2010)



This is how the Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) describes the focus of Functional Medicine:

Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century. By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, functional medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, functional medicine supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual.

– Institute for Functional Medicine (undated – A)

Illness-Wellness Continuum © 1972, 1981, 1988, 2004 by John W. Travis, MD. Reproduced with permission. From Wellness Workbook: How to achieve enduring health and vitality, 3rd edition, by John W. Travis and Regina Sara Ryan, Celestial Arts, 2004. The IFM lists six guiding principles of Functional Medicine:

  • An understanding of the biochemical individuality of each human being, based on the concepts of genetic and environmental uniqueness

  • Awareness of the evidence that supports a patient-centered rather than a disease-centered approach to treatment

  • Search for a dynamic balance among the internal and external body, mind, and spirit

  • Familiarity with the web-like interconnections of internal physiological factors;

  • Identification of health as a positive vitality not merely the absence of disease emphasizing those factors that encourage the enhancement of a vigorous physiology

  • Promotion of organ reserve as the means to enhance the health span, not just the life span, of each patient

A patient-centered approach refers to health care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values, and that ensures that patient values guide all clinical decisions. At IFM, patient-centered care is at the center of what we call the therapeutic partnership, the relationship that forms between a patient and clinician that empowers the patient to take ownership of their own healing. The power of the therapeutic partnership comes from the idea that patients who are active participants in the development of their therapeutic plan feel more in control of their own well-being and are more likely to make sustained lifestyle changes to improve their health. – Institute for Functional Medicine (undated – B)

(Source: New-You-Me)

WESTERN MEDICINE Western Medicine (also sometimes called Conventional, Allopathic, or Traditional Medicine) is what most of us are exposed to and its offerings are what’s considered ‘customary and usual’ treatment by our health insurance (if we’re lucky enough to have that). In the Western Medical approach, in the form it has evolved into today, health care practitioners focus on symptoms of ill health and offer pharmaceutical drugs and/or surgery to try to alleviate these symptoms. This approach has proved to cost a great deal and hasn’t been very successful at helping us stay healthy.


Western Medicine, with its many and ever-increasing specialties and sub-specialties, has unfortunately come to resemble this:


In 2013, the Association of American Medical Colleges listed 120 medical specialties and sub-specialties.


It’s well known that the cost of health care in the US is the highest in the world (for health insurance, doctors’ visits, procedures, hospital stays, and prescription medicines) while our quality of health and average life expectancy is no better than – or is worse than – our counterparts in other countries.  For more information on this, see More Proof That American Health Care Prices Are Sky-High. (Young, 2014) Americans spend 2.5 times more on health care as people living in other developed countries. The graphic below compares the 2014 costs of health care procedures and tests, along with life expectancy, in the US to four other developed nations. (Lyons, 2014)

(Source: Health Care Intelligence Network, 2014)

This graph compares health care costs in 13 countries in 2011, showing percentages paid by private citizens and the various governments. Note that the price of health in the US was not only much higher than in any of the other 12 countries but Americans also had to spend a great deal more out of pocket:


Our approach to health care apparently isn’t working so well.


THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION’S DEFINITION OF HEALTH The World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, was founded in 1948 to address international public health. In the Preamble to its Constitution, adopted in 1946 and signed by 61 countries, it defined health as: A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This definition has not been amended since 1948. (WHO, 2003)

Functional Medicine’s approach is clearly in alignment with WHO’s long term mission – while Western Medicine has taken an unfortunate turn away from being concerned with health to focus instead on trying to eliminate symptoms.


REFERENCES Association of American Medical Colleges. (2013). Careers in Medicine. See: Institute for Functional Medicine. (undated – A). What is Functional Medicine. See: Institute for Functional Medicine. (undated -B). CORE PRINCIPLES OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE. See: Lipman, F. (2010). Philosophy. See: Lyons, J. (2014). Infographic: Healthcare Spending in America. Healthcare Intelligence Network. See: World Health Organization. (2003). WHO Definition of Health. See: Young, J. (2014). More Proof That American Health Care Prices Are Sky-High. Huff Post – Business.  See: © Copyright 2015 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


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