If you’re uninsured, doctors are your worst enemy: They may help your pesky cold disappear, but they’ll also wipe out your bank account, and may even hunt you down for more after that. But the M.D.s behind functional medicine aren’t after your money; nor do they want to send you to a specialist who is. They want to make you so healthy that you’ll hardly ever need health insurance again. These are doctors you want to be your friends.
So what is functional medicine? That was the topic of conversation for nearly five hours at a recent event hosted by New York’s Urbanzen Foundation, where a panel of experts led by Dr. Frank Lipman convinced a full house that we need to change a lot more about health care than just insurance. The field’s top advocates, practitioners, and researchers all offered their own explanations of what it is and why we should all care about it; even for them, it wasn’t easy to give a one-sentence explanation. Their definitions ranged from super-simple (“medicine that makes sense”) to radical (“disruptive technology that will overthrow the tyranny of the diagnosis”), but the gist is that functional medicine is a way of treating patients that reorients the focus away from symptoms of disease, towards its causes.
Instead of sending you to specialists who can give you a test, diagnosis, and drug for your stomach-ache, the doctors behind functional medicine want to help you identify why you have it in the first place. Maybe your stomach is sensitive to certain foods, a drug or vitamin, or even something to do with your lack of sleep. By figuring out the “why” instead of the “what,” these doctors hope to find healthy, sustainable (and did we mention affordable?) solutions to patient problems.
You might be tempted to write these doctors off as “alternative medicine” practitioners or “natural healers,” or discredit them for bucking the system of traditional medicine. (You may feel particularly skeptical when you find out that their services aren’t supported by the vast majority of health insurance companies, too). But Lipman and his co-panelists made a convincing argument: Treating patients this way would not only make for less-medicated, more happy patients; it could also fix a lot of problems in our health care system.
No one can promise that you’ll never rack up a bill in the emergency room (unfortunately, it’s hard to beat insurance in the event of a car accident or meningitis), but Lipman and his co-panelists pointed out that what’s really killing most people (and getting billed to their insurance) isn’t emergency procedures: It’s chronic disease. “Functional Medicine provides a framework for the solution of a chronic disease epidemic,” Dr. Lipman said. He says that by 2020, over 50 million people will die of chronic disease while infectious disease will kill less than 20 million. As of now, 81% of Americans take at least one prescription drug, according to his presentation. And according to the 2009 World Economic Forum, the number one threat to global economic development is chronic disease (sick populations are far less productive than healthy ones).
What Lipman and his colleagues do promise is that they can find treatments that are more cost-effective, healthier, and more sustainable that traditional medicine currently offers. “Right now the debate is about who pays, but we need to change the conversation to talk about the system,” Lipman says. The doctors unanimously agreed that diagnosis, the fundamental guideline by which western medicine functions, does more damage than it does help: “Naming a disease doesn’t tell you anything about the disease,” said Dr. Mark Hyman. Instead, functional medicine seeks to treat the “ecosystem” of a patient’s body, rather than the disease, because according to Jeff Bland, PhD, “‘treatments’ don’t cure, they just manage the outcome of interactions between genes and the environment.” By adjusting health factors like diet, behavior, and environmental conditions, functional medicine can treat the cause of chronic and acute disease; not just the symptoms.
If you’re still skeptical (as many Americans who’ve been taught to pop their pills and visit several specialists are), Bland still wants a chance to make his case:
You might say that I’m some kind of a renegade alarmist, that I have this kind of zealot ,chicken little, sky-is-falling attitude, but I think if we start looking at the cost of health care and its inflation, which outgrows our economic inflation by at least twofold, and we start asking why is it that we spend 35 to 40 percent more per capita on health care than any other country, yet we’re 35th in health outcomes according to the World Health Organization… An economist would say: ‘Hold on, that’s the point of diminishing returns. Do more or get less.’ So we either rearrange the deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic (which is called the Obama Health Care Plan, by the way) or we start looking at the whole system.
Bland reassured the audience that he’s all for universal health care, but said health reform is merely designed to treat more people who are getting sicker earlier. Instead, he suggests: “We need to deeply probe what we’ve learned in the 21st century about why people get sick.”
Despite the discouraging statistics about chronic illness and American health care, there’s good news: Functional medicine isn’t just a theory that has yet to be tested in real life: All of the panelists currently treat patients using functional medicine, and their ideas extend well beyond their cult followings in cities like New York. Dr. Bob Rountree, one of the panelists who spoke at Urbanzen, trains other doctors in how to adjust their clinical practice through the Institute for Functional Medicine, and Dr. Hyman is a popular and respected recurring guest on Dr. Oz.
So should everyone jump up from their desks and to run and cancel their health insurance? Probably not. Like I said, there’s no guarantee against visits to the E.R., and functional medicine doesn’t preclude the use of prescriptions, either. But if you have chronic health issues, are frustrated by the high cost of your prescription-filled medicine cabinet, or simply don’t have insurance to begin with, seeking out a functional medicine practitioner could be a better approach to health care for you and your wallet. And if you’re not up for the high cost of a visit to Dr. Lipman or Dr. Hyman, they both have books that they say have made a visit to the doctor totally unnecessary for some patients. “One patient came in, and when I asked her what the problem was,” Lipman recounted, ” she said that the waiting list to see me was so long that by the time her appointment came around, she’d read my book, followed the suggestions, and resolved the issues herself.”