In a recent TedxChicago talk, Dr. Mark Hyman – an 11-time New York Times best-selling author and functional medicine expert – shared these statistics:

  • one in two Americans has a chronic disease;
  • 70 percent of Americans are overweight;
  • a research study in prisons showed that violent crime went down 56% when inmates were fed a healthy diet and 80% if they were given a multivitamin.

Dr. Hyman went on to say that food has an enormous impact on our brain chemistry, mood, and behavior. It changes our hormones and metabolism, impacts every cell in our body, and has a direct impact on our overall health.

Having watched this video as well as Dr. Hyman’s PBS special Food: What The Heck Should I Eat?, I thought listeners to our monthly Learning Well Edge Talk Radio program would also be intrigued by the functional medicine approach.

A few weeks later, when I came across an interview with Dr. Patrick Hanaway which indicated there was a waiting list of 2,000+ people at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, I knew the call I had to make.

During my discussion with Dr. Hanaway on our Learning Well radio program in early March, he indicated that when he took the job as the first Medical Director at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine in October 2014, he thought he and his staff of one doctor, one nutritionist, and one nurse would have three months to get everything together.

They were full the first day, however, and, by the spring, were hiring more doctors, but couldn’t keep up with the demand. The more people they hired, the more the word spread, which resulted in an even longer waiting list.

What Is Functional Medicine and Why Is There a Waiting List?

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine’s website, functional medicine is a “systems biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease.”

According to Dr. Hanaway, we sit “at the edge of a tsunami in health care”: in 10 years, the majority of the people in China will be over 60. In the US, 50% of all adults have at least one chronic disease, 25% have two or more, and 86% of health care costs are caused by chronic disease.

As Dr. Hanaway explained, the patient-centered functional medicine approach provides a very different model and focuses on listening to patients’ stories. In a normal visit to a physician, the average time a patient talks before being interrupted is 15 seconds.

At the Cleveland Clinic, patients are asked to complete a 600-question form which doctors read prior to meeting with the patient. Often, Cleveland Clinic doctors spend an hour talking with patients at their initial visit to examine the patient’s health timeline.

They might ask:

  • When was the last time you felt well?
  • When and how did things shift?
  • What were the precipitating causes – did a family member or close friend die? Was there a job loss, did the patient travel to a country where he or she got an infection, or did the patient get sick when chemicals were used in the process of putting a new roof on the house?

Patients then spend another hour with a nutritionist and 15-30 minutes with a health coach. A medical assistant recaps the visit, navigates the patient to the lab and outlines the next steps.

Then, physicians review the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex chronic disease and determine a course of action.

Functional Medicine’s Approach

In a standard medical visit, if a patient is depressed, they’re often given a prescription. But in the functional medicine approach, the doctor attempts to determine what’s causing the depression.

Is it a lack of light? Eating a diet of highly processed foods and sugar? Exposure to mercury? Alterations in the microbiome? All the potential root causes are explored before a patient plan is put into place.

For every hour of a clinician’s time, one hour of time is spent with a nutritionist. A coach works with the patient to help him or her move through the healing process.

Later on, there is also a focus on shared medical appointments. Small groups of patients with similar challenges come together every week for 1-2 hours, over a 10-week period, guided by a coach. Patients also participate in closed Facebook groups.

Preliminary research indicates that those who work together in small groups and in Facebook groups (as opposed to continued visits with a clinician) function best.

What Could Tip the Balance in Health Care?

According to the Institute for Functional Medicine’s website, health care spending in the U.S. in 2015 reached $3.2 trillion. This sum exceeded the combined federal expenditures for national defense, homeland security, education, and welfare.

By 2023, if we don’t change how we confront this challenge, annual health care costs in the U.S. will rise to over $4 trillion, the equivalent – in a single year – of four Iraq wars, making the cost of care using the current health care model economically unsustainable.

Dr. Hanaway believes that corporations could lead the way in the approach to better health care in the future. And frankly, it comes down to the bottom line. It turns out that 5% of employees comprise 50% of health care costs for corporations.

With health care costs rising dramatically each year, the current research the Cleveland Clinic is doing on functional medicine’s cost of care outcomes could be significant.

And, by the way, if you’re interested in finding a functional medicine doctor in your area, check out the “Find a Practitioner” tab on the Institute for Functional Medicine’s website.

As Dr. Hyman has said, “Right now we’re paying for volume in health care instead of value. That’s shifting and we believe we’re a key part of the solution.”

What kinds of changes would you like to see in your health care system? Have you had an experience with a functional medicine practitioner? If so, what can you share? Please join the conversation.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.

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