As American medicine increasingly focuses on wellness and prevention, more physicians are calling for integrated practices that combine the best of Eastern and Western medicine to give patients a holistic approach to their health.
What is integrative medicine?
The practice goes by many names. A few years ago, it was called complementary or alternative medicine. But as its therapies have become more commonplace — particularly in pediatrics and oncology — the name has evolved to integrative medicine. Sandi Chiu, MSOM, LAc, is the education coordinator at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. Originally trained in Chinese Medicine, she has seen the acceptance and merging of the two approaches to treating patients.
"Traditional medicine has always been focused on the patient as an individual," she says. "This integration allows us to truly provide patient-centered care."
Here, physicians trained in Chinese medicine work alongside traditional Western physicians to develop patient-focused treatment options that address quality of life while also combating disease. This may mean a patient takes medications but is also prescribed yoga, meditation or acupuncture.
Oncology and, recently, pediatrics have been leading the way in integrative medicine. People with cancer are inundated with medications and toxic chemicals; traditional medicine comes in to help reduce this chemical content and manage their symptoms. In pediatrics, most parents want their children exposed to as few drugs as possible. Acupuncture, meditation and similar holistic methods can help with pain management, stress, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and more.
The UCLA Center for East-West Medicine is also beginning a program of integrative primary care, through which model, according to Chiu, "we want to empower patients to maintain their health."
Pursuing an East-West integrative medicine career
Although specializing in integrative medicine doesn't become a reality until fellowship, students in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA can surround themselves with a wealth of resources to learn about this style of treatment. "This is a growing field, and students can build their own path," Chiu observes.
In earlier generations of medical school, students could take an elective course in integrative medicine. Today, the Integrative Medicine Student Interest Group offers more opportunities to explore this field outside of class and lab. In addition, the group hosts an educational conference every year in collaboration with undergraduate students, faculty and the UCLA Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine. This year's theme was "Practical Approaches to Wellness Through Integrative Medicine: Benefits for a Lifetime."
The school also encourages first-year students to apply for LEAPS into IM, a weeklong course that serves to build leaders in integrative medicine. It's sponsored by the American Medical Student Association.
Chiu encourages students to find a mentor and get involved in research opportunities. UCLA has experts across multiple specialties, from sleep researchers examining the benefits of Tai Chi to a neurobiologist studying "gut bacteria."
"UCLA has units that have been doing integrative medicine for a while, with a lot of leading researchers and experts," she says. "This is really the place to be for this growing field."
For real-world experience, students can observe or volunteer at the Center for East-West Medicine or at the Venice Family Clinic. Both offer integrative medicine clinical programs and ample training opportunities. Doctors can bring it all together by passing a board exam. In 2014, the American Board of Integrative Medicine began offering an Integrative Medicine board certification.
Options for training in East-West integrative medicine care are sure to continue growing.
By Patricia Chaney