What is Integrative Medicine?

Find Out Whether Integrative Medicine Might or Might Not be Right For You.

Have you found yourself increasingly frustrated by conventional or Western medicine, but you don’t know whether you want to completely turn to alternative options either? If that’s the case, you may want to explore integrative medicine. Julie McGregor, MD is a board-certified internist and nephrologist trained in integrative medicine who works with the Integrative Medical Clinic of North Carolina. She explains in this Q&A what integrative medicine is and offers information that may help you decide whether it might or might not be right for you. 

Peppermint Tea & Me: What is integrative medicine?

Julie McGregor: It’s really about trying to blend any component of wellness or healing or disease treatment or prevention into an individualized approach for any given person. So, it’s trying to use the best of all the different worlds that are out there with healing and wellness to approach optimizing somebody’s health in an individualized plan. 

PTM: How do you feel like that’s different from conventional medicine?

Julie McGregor, MD

Julie McGregor: It’s really about trying to blend any component of wellness or healing or disease treatment or prevention into an individualized approach for any given person. So, it’s trying to use the best of all the different worlds that are out there with healing and wellness to approach optimizing somebody’s health in an individualized plan. 

Sometimes, there may be healing that is achieved from a lot of different modalities that are traditional – like Chinese medicine, or yogic tradition, or nutritional healing and that kind of thing. Integrative Medicine tries to hold space for those types of modalities in addition to pharmaceuticals or surgery. It’s not just doing alternative, and it’s also not just doing Western conventional medicine. It’s trying to use what’s best from all of that in helping a person achieve wellness or avoid disease through whatever means makes the most sense for that person. 

PTM: Your practice’s website says that you focus on the integration of complementary medicine with gold-standard medicine and specialty training. What exactly does that mean?

JM: It’s basically honoring that trying to avoid side effects or pharmaceuticals may be the best course for any patient. But, if a person has the need for pharmaceuticals or has an illness that is requiring of a specialized intervention, our clinic has the training to take care of illnesses in the Western or conventional approach. We’ve really focused our whole careers on how to use medicines and how to appropriately care for people in a medical setting, but we also have a focus on trying to be as holistic and non-pharmaceutical and open to all kinds of healing. 

What we’re saying is that if somebody came in and needed an approach to a serious medical condition, we feel completely comfortable doing that. At the same time, if a person came in and said, “I absolutely don’t want to be on a medicine, and I want to stay well without pharmaceuticals,” we feel completely comfortable aligning with that person and trying to help them on their wellness path. 

For most of the rest of us, who are kind of in between, who want to avoid medicines when possible but are open to using the best of pharmaceuticals or Western medicine if necessary, we feel comfortable in that journey with them as well. All of this feels really comfortable to us because of doing a broad range of training. All of our providers have been in the western medicine, conventional medicine tertiary medical centers for most of our training, so we don’t feel like we’re alternative providers but at the same time, we’re very open to a holistic or alternative approach for people who want to do it that way.

PTM: Do you ever find that people are skeptical about your approach?

JM: I think a lot of the people who come to us are looking for that kind of blend. I do have a number of patients who want to turn to the pharmaceutical route first, and that’s fine. Then I do have some people who absolutely really don’t want to be on medicine. They want to have me there telling them whether they’re making safe choices with their herbs. I’m fine with that too. 

For the most part, I think people are really open to combining all the different types of health and wellness ideals and a lot of my folks in our clinic have a multiple provider team. They may have a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a physician, a wellness coach, and a nutritionist. That’s a lot of people weighing in. Our goal is to have mutual respect among all the different providers so that patients don’t feel like there’s a conflict between what one person is suggesting and what another person is suggesting. Unless we really see there’s a danger, and of course, we would speak up about that.

PTM: Is a team approach to healing and wellness part of the integrative medicine model?

JM: We do try in integrative medicine to have a connection with a lot of different types of providers. I will communicate with chiropractors, naturopaths, Chinese medicine providers, and shamans. All different types of healers. I’ll do that as much as I will with a hematologist or a gastroenterologist or a cardiologist or a neurologist. So, I think, integrative medicine is very much about a team approach. 

I don’t know how to do acupuncture, I am definitely not an herbalist, and I haven’t had formal nutritional training. I rely a lot on the expertise of people who are holistic providers and would definitely say that integrative medicine is about connection and about teams and about honoring a lot of healing modalities.

PTM: Your foundational training was very much in conventional medicine. Why did you decide to go in this direction?

JM: I was raised by a registered nurse who was involved with an obstetrician who worked under the focus of Dr. Christiane Northrup. Dr. Northrup wrote a book called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. That’s how my mom sort of approached health and wellness with me. 

When I went to medical school, I had the idea that spirituality, emotional health and wellness, alignment and balance and nutrition would be how my career would progress. In western medicine training though, wellness, and nutrition and spirituality and emotion aren’t really the focus. It’s very comfortable actually. It’s hard, hard work to be in medicine, but at the same time, there’s a comfort that comes from doing this protocolized research-proven approach. I personally had a lot of interest in health, wellness, alternative medicine, spirituality and all of these things. But mentally, I had a lot of comfort with approaching medicine through conventional medicine and that scientific sort of western mentality. 

By my early 40s, I realized that I was approaching medicine in a way that I probably wouldn’t do for myself and wouldn’t suggest for my family. I was in dialysis care and prescribing a lot of chemotherapy for patients that had vasculitis and autoimmune disease. I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t have a lot of authenticity about what I was recommending to my patients because I probably wouldn’t have been making a lot of those choices if I was in their position. So, I came to this realization that I wanted the rest of my career to be in alignment with how I would approach health and wellness if I was the person that I was talking to. 

PTM: Was that a difficult shift to make?

JM: It required me making a big shift in my career trajectory. Not that I was neglecting everything that I had learned. I was actually happy to have been trained the way I was. incorporating more of the holistic and wellness that I honored in my own life and through my own family with my patient care was a shift away from conventional tried and true approaches. It was more of a vulnerable space of let’s partner together and find what works for you as an individual using all that we know about all of these different modalities. 

PTM: When might someone want to consider seeing an integrative medicine practitioner?

JM: There are some people who come to integrative medicine just because they’re looking for a primary care provider, and they like the idea of sort of being more natural or holistic as a first line. Some people come to integrative medicine because they actually really prefer naturopaths or Chinese medicine or chiropractic care but want to have an MD involved for just making sure that they have a doctor on record as part of their team. 

And then for other people, integrative medicine is just sort of how they have been living. They’ve been holistic, or Mind-Body connected or nutritionally focused or found through their own just trial and error that using food as medicine really resonated with them. When they go to their doctor, they don’t feel like those choices for their health are as respected or as honored as they want them to be. They will come to integrative medicine because they’ve sort of found that path for themselves and they’re looking for resonance.

Important Note About Insurance and Integrative Medicine

If you decide to work with an integrative medicine practitioner, check with your health insurance provider about whether it covers specific recommended therapies. Some therapies are covered by some providers, others are not. In addition, if you have a healthcare reimbursement account, you can check to see if the therapies that you’re considering are covered by that plan. 

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