*This article was updated in November 2023.
Have you ever made a doctor’s appointment only to find yourself sitting in the waiting room until an hour or more after your scheduled time? And then, after a very rushed 15-20 minute visit, your doctor sends you on your way with a prescription and no new insight into what exactly is happening with your health?
If so, you’re not alone – far from it! While we are beyond fortunate to have our conventional medical system to rely on when it comes to treating acute illnesses, infections, and injuries, our modern healthcare system isn’t all that great when it comes to treating chronic conditions. You see, in today’s world, when most people get sick, it’s no longer an acute illness that sends them to the doctor. And proper diagnosis and treatment of these diseases require more than a 15-minute appointment – much more.
Addressing the root cause of these chronic conditions is where the field of integrative and functional medicine really shines. So today, we’re going to explore exactly what functional medicine is and how to go about choosing the right functional medicine practitioner for you. Let’s dive in.
So, How Is Functional Medicine Different Than Seeing a Regular Doctor?
Regular, conventional doctors operate in a more linear fashion. They identify symptoms and devise a plan to halt or manage those symptoms. And that works wonderfully for straightforward, acute conditions like an infection or an injury. But when you approach many chronic conditions in this way, you end up simply masking symptoms rather than actually resolving them – kind of like putting a band-aid over them instead of actually healing the problem at the source.
Integrative and functional medicine doctors, on the other hand, function as a sort of detective of the human body – piecing together clues to find the underlying issue that symptoms are stemming from. By obtaining comprehensive medical histories, conducting lab work and other diagnostic tests, and utilizing their broad understanding of the body and its metabolic processes, these practitioners are able to look beyond the symptoms and offer real, lifelong solutions.
Finding the root cause of symptoms is the foundation of integrative and functional medicine – whether they are infectious, toxic, genetic, nutritional, metabolic, emotional, or more. Because when you address the root cause, there’s a much better chance of reversing or eliminating the condition altogether.
Now before we dive into some of the different types of functional medicine practitioners, let’s first clarify if there’s a difference between functional and integrative doctors since these terms are often used interchangeably.
Are Functional and Integrative Doctors the Same?
The answer to this question is – sort of. Integrative and functional medicine have some minor differences – functional medicine tends to focus more on the biological root cause while integrative medicine aims a little more at healing the mind-body-spirit. But there is much more overlap and similarities than differences between the two, with both of these medical models:
- Seeking to understand the underlying causes of diseases and symptoms
- Directing a variety of holistic treatments at the “upstream” issues rather than simply suppressing or masking the “downstream” symptoms
- Believing that lifestyle factors (physically, mentally, environmentally, and more) are major determining factors in the development of disease and are key to healing
And the good news is, both of these medical approaches evolved from the idea that true healing requires solutions that target the root cause. Meaning the vast majority of practitioners incorporate the principles of both functional and integrative medicine into their practice to help their patients tap into true healing. So, if you’re on the hunt for a doctor who will help you pinpoint the root cause of your symptoms, don’t let the differences in these terms deter you – they are used interchangeably.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s zoom in on the different types of functional medicine practitioners.
What Is a Functional Medicine Doctor? Types Of Functional Medicine Practitioners
With the increase in online resources and advice, it’s very important to check the credentials of any person from whom you are taking health advice. Sadly, It is not uncommon for unscrupulous individuals to call themselves “doctors” without any basis or credentials, playing on the vulnerability of the general public.
There are several different types of credentialed and legitimate practitioners that specialize in integrative and functional medicine, and it’s important that you know the difference so you can choose which is most beneficial for you.
- Medical Doctor (M.D.): A doctor who first went through traditional medical school and then added training and education in integrative and functional medicine. They will have the most flexibility in ordering tests and prescribing medications.
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.): This is a doctor who, like an M.D. has a wide range of services they are able to offer. This means they can prescribe medication, and are even able to become surgeons. They generally focus on the body as a whole.
- Nurse Practitioner (N.P.): Many people don’t realize that nurse practitioners in many ways have similar abilities as doctors. They are able to own and operate their own practices and can also prescribe medications.
- Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.): While chiropractors are generally thought of as those who primarily treat orthopedic dysfunction, they are also able to practice functional medicine. They cannot prescribe medications and usually have a medical doctor they work with or recommend if you need a traditional treatment.
- Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (N.D.): These doctors use a system of treatment of disease that avoids drugs and surgery and emphasizes the use of natural agents. Their prescribing and licensing privileges vary by state.
While all of these practitioners can absolutely help you find the source of your symptoms and guide you through a plan to jumpstart your healing, they do differ and carry different benefits. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find the best fit for your life. But credentials and a focus on a functional medicine approach aren't the only factors to consider when it comes to choosing the right doctor.
Key Characteristics of a Good Functional Medicine Doctor
A practitioner's credentials are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to choosing a good functional medicine doctor. You also want to evaluate them on a deeper level to ensure they are indeed a good fit for you and have your best interest in mind.
Here are some of the most important key characteristics of a good functional medicine doctor:
- They take a personalized approach to your treatment plan: A good doctor will dive deep into many areas of your life including your diet, your movement, your environment, your sleep and stress levels, your history, and much much more. A good doctor will need an in-depth understanding of you as a unique individual so they can come up with a treatment plan personalized to you.
- They don’t make grandiose promises: While your doctor should be confident in their ability to help you, they should also be realistic and not make over-the-top promises that they aren’t sure they can deliver on.
- They specialize in complex chronic conditions: The functional medicine approach arose out of the need to understand and treat complex, multi-layered conditions. A good doctor will be well-versed in complex chronic conditions that could include things like autoimmunity, Lyme disease, environmental illnesses, and other not-so-straightforward diagnosis.
- They see themselves as your partner in health: A quality doctor will always serve as your partner, not your superior. They will guide you, listen to you, and hold your hand every step of the way – not demand that you comply with their protocols.
- They outline expectations so you know what to expect all along the way: The functional medicine approach requires you as the patient to be in the driver’s seat – meaning it’s the lifestyle changes that you make and adhere to that are key to healing. You’ll want to look for a doctor that sets realistic expectations when it comes to your role in the treatment plan as well as what to expect throughout your journey together.
- They help you prioritize decisions such as testing and changes that need to be made: In a perfect world, we’d all have access to unlimited resources, time, and money. But unfortunately, most of us don’t have that luxury. A good doctor will help you prioritize the things that will give you the most bang for your buck and help you move the needle in the right direction.
- They make you feel comfortable and unjudged: Again, your doctor is your partner when it comes to your health. A good doctor should help you feel at ease talking about anything – even if it’s awkward or embarrassing.
- They spend the time with you: It takes more than a 15-minute visit to get to the root cause of your symptoms and come up with a treatment plan. Look for a clinician who sets aside enough time to truly dedicate themselves to getting to know you.
If you find a clinician who checks all these boxes, you’re likely in excellent hands. Now let’s go over a few red flags to look for that might indicate a doctor is not such a good fit.
A Few Red Flags That Might Mean It’s Time To Look For a New Functional Medicine Doctor
Here are some red flags that should raise your eyebrows and perhaps be your sign that it’s time to opt for a different doctor:
- They don’t seem to weigh the cost/benefit of tests or overly recommend expensive testing: The cost of testing and treatment options is a very real concern. And if your doctor doesn’t take that into consideration, they may not be a good fit. Be sure to be honest about your financial limitations so they can work with you to find the best solution for your health and your wallet.
- They don’t think diet is very important: Your diet quite literally provides the building blocks that make up every single cell in your body. So it’s ludicrous to believe that the food you put into your body doesn’t impact your health. Beware of any clinicians who don’t place a strong emphasis on the importance of your diet.
- They recommend overly expensive and excessive supplements: Supplements can be an incredibly powerful component of treatment and healing. But doctors can also make a commission off of selling or recommending supplements. This isn’t a bad thing, there’s nothing wrong with making a commission by recommending products they trust – just be sure they can explain to you why they are recommending said supplements and can help you prioritize which will be most beneficial if you can only afford a few at a time.
- They recommend harsh or dangerous detoxes: Detoxing can be a highly beneficial component of treatment. But a detox plan should never be extreme.
- They promise you cures: Beware of anyone who makes bold claims or promises a cure. While there are many strategies and methods that can certainly be helpful, it’s impossible and dangerous to make any guarantees.
- They make you feel uncomfortable or don’t listen to you: If a doctor makes you feel judged, uncomfortable, or dismissed, run for the hills. Feeling supported and comfortable is the bare minimum when it comes to choosing a good doctor.
- They make you feel powerless or discouraged: A quality doctor will help you feel empowered, motivated, and capable, not powerless or discouraged. Remember, when it comes to your health, you are in the driver's seat – your doctor is there to guide you and support you – not belittle or disempower you.
If you encounter a doctor that has any red flags that make you second guess them, don’t be afraid to move on and find a different practitioner. Your health and well-being are way too important to leave in the hands of a doctor you don’t feel entirely comfortable with.
While there are many functional medicine doctors who are excellent at what they do and don't have any of the dreaded red flags, the truth is, doctors are humans too. Meaning they simply can’t know everything. So, if you’re dealing with a particularly complex condition, it can be immensely helpful to seek out a clinician who specializes in your condition.
Finding a Functional Medicine Doctor Who Specializes in Your Condition
When you’re looking for a functional medicine doctor who specializes in a particular condition, start in your local area with a general Google search. You may or may not find a good few options easily. Here’s a quick step-by-step process for how you might narrow your search when looking for an integrative or functional medicine doctor:
- Google integrative and functional medicine doctors in your area: If you live in a city with lots of neighboring towns, be sure to try searching in some of the areas near you. For example, I’m located in Louisville, CO which is close to both Boulder and Denver. If you live in the Denver area be sure to check: Boulder, Aurora, Centennial, and more.
- Do a search based on your condition: If you have a condition, search in your area but also beyond. Sometimes it’s worth it to travel a bit if it means you’ll find someone who specializes in your condition.
- Browse condition-specific websites and forums: If you have a certain condition, sometimes you can find a list of doctors who specialize in it on websites and support groups sites devoted to that condition. For example, many autoimmune conditions have their own websites of resources that will help you find a doctor more quickly. You may even find forums where previous patients discuss how they liked a particular doctor.
- Check reviews: Once you find a couple of doctors you’re interested in, be sure to check for any reviews by searching the specific doctor’s name.
- Research: Once you’ve made a preliminary list of doctors you might like, do a little searching on their website and/or social media. You can often get a good idea about how you’d like a doctor from listening to interviews, Youtube videos, podcasts, and reading blogs.
- Make an appointment: The only way you’ll really know you’ve found the doctor perfect for you is if you make an initial appointment and meet them in real life.
Following these steps can help you weed out doctors that might not be a great fit and help you find one that’s right for you. And thanks to modern technology and the introduction of telemedicine, you have the ability to access and be in touch with brilliant functional medicine doctors from anywhere in the world.
Consider Telemedicine: Find a Functional Medicine Doctor Online
We are fortunate enough to live in a time where you are no longer limited to medical care within a certain radius of your home. Telemedicine is a fast growing industry that pairs patients with doctors all over the world. Benefits of telemedicine include:
- Access to a specialist without the cost of travel: With telemedicine you have access to a wider range of doctors than you would in your local area. Plus, you don’t have to travel to their office and can complete appointments with your computer in the comfort of your home.
- Convenience: Telemedicine appointments are often done over Skype or some other form of video call and then tests are ordered to a local laboratory.
- Possibly more affordable: Sometimes telemedicine is actually more affordable because it doesn’t require office time and it makes visits more efficient.
- Better follow through: Because telemedicine makes it so easy and comfortable to interact with a doctor, many find they are more willing to interact with a doctor and find it easier to follow through with their treatment plans.
If you find a doctor you think is perfect for you, see if they offer telemedicine appointments. Even if that doctor doesn’t advertise it on their site, it might be worth asking if it’s something they can do. Technology is rapidly expanding our options and telemedicine is yet another way we can think outside the box for better health.
Now let’s dive into some additional resources that can help you find a good functional medicine doctor.
Resources for Finding an Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor
While the steps outlined above can be a good place to start when looking for a practitioner, there are a few other resources and websites that might be able to help you narrow your search even further. Here are a few websites that can point you in the right direction:
- **American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine (a4m)
- American Association of Naturopathic Physician (AANP)
- **American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM)
- **Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine
- Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB)
- **Forum Health Functional Medicine & Weight Loss Clinics
- Functional Medicine Coaching Academy (FMCA)
- **Integrative Medicine Board Certification (ABPS)
- **International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS)
- **International Society for Environmentally Acquired Illness (ISEAI)
- **The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM)
- **The Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM)
**If you are looking for medical doctor, try these first
While it might take a little time and research, it’s well worth the effort to find a functional medicine doctor that’s the perfect fit for you!
Ready To Experience the Power of Integrative and Functional Medicine For Yourself?
The ability of functional medicine to look beyond the symptoms and offer life-changing solutions is why I am so passionate about my life’s work. It’s time there was a rebirth of the doctor-patient relationship – and integrative and functional medicine might just be the solution to many of our current medical frustrations.
I firmly believe everyone should have access to the benefits of holistic personalized medicine that the functional medicine approach offers. I truly hope this helps you find a functional medicine doctor that is just right for you. But if you’re at a place where perhaps seeing a functional medicine doctor isn’t in the cards right now, you can still tap into this approach to whole body, mind, and soul well-being.
I’ve got loads of free functional medicine-based resources you can access on my blog and YouTube channel (I drop new content every week so be sure to get on my email list too by entering your name and email address in the form at the bottom of this page). And you’ve got to check out my new book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith. In it, I reveal how the functional medicine approach helped me recover from devastating diagnosis, earth-shattering heartbreak, and countless life hurdles to create a life of vibrant health, happiness, and purpose. I wrote this book with the hopes that it can help you do the same.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn the differences between functional medicine and conventional medicine? Do you have any tips for finding a good functional medicine doctor? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.