Health & Wellness

Conventional, integrative, and functional medicine: what’s the difference and which is right for you?

December 8, 2020 By
This article was reviewed by Dr. Dani Urcuyo of SteadyMD.

On our patient-doctor matching quiz, we ask patients whether they prefer a certain medical approach such as conventional, integrative, or functional. Many quiz-takers report that they don’t really know the difference between these styles, so let’s break them down.

What’s the difference between conventional, integrative, and functional medicine?

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine is also commonly called western medicine, and is likely the type of care you would receive when you visit a traditional doctor’s office in the U.S. This approach evaluates the body from a biophysical perspective, meaning that it applies the study of physics to understand how the body works.

This approach often operates using statistically-likely diagnoses and treatment methods that have been shown to be effective across large populations. Generally, conventional medicine focuses on treating the symptoms and issues of a certain area. Treatments may include methods such as prescription drugs, radiation, or surgery.

It’s important to note that conventional medicine is a broad term that covers varying styles of doctoring. For example, MDs practice allopathic medicine, which focuses on diagnosing and treating diseases and symptoms. DOs practice osteopathic medicine, which tends to take a more holistic, whole-body approach. This is to say, even underneath the conventional medicine umbrella, doctors have differing ways of how they diagnose and treat their patients.

Integrative Medicine

Integrative medicine combines some practices of conventional medicine and alternative medicine. Integrative medicine also focuses on preventive practices, such as helping patients with their diets, lifestyles, stress management, and movement. This approach also acknowledges that factors outside of the physical body can influence one’s health, such as mental and emotional wellbeing, and social relationships.

In integrative medicine, the practitioner aids the healing process by working to activate the body’s internal healing process. A guiding principle is that medicine should be rooted in credible science and use natural, less invasive treatments whenever possible.

Examples of common practices that may be used in integrative medicine are acupuncture, massage therapy, dietary supplements, and meditation. These methods are thought to most effectively benefit your health when used in tandem with conventional medicine treatments.

Functional Medicine

Functional medicine focuses on identifying the root cause of disease. Functional doctors work with their patients to determine how and why illness occurs, and then aim to restore health by treating the root cause of health issues, not just the symptoms.

SteadyMD’s Dr. Dani Urcuyo is trained in functional medicine and offers this perspective about how functional medicine differs from traditional medicine:

“A great way to explain this is to examine how depression is treated by different medical approaches. Traditional medicine may prescribe a prescription medication, while integrative medicine may recommend a supplement such as St. John’s wort. Functional medicine on the other hand, tries to figure why the person is depressed. Functional medicine aims to identify the root cause. Once the root cause is identified, treatment begins.”

This approach acknowledges the complexity of disease and individualizes treatment based on the patient’s needs. Functional doctors will help the patient understand the unique genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors that influence their health. Essentially, functional medicine is an individualized, patient-centered, and science-based approach to treating disease and promoting optimal health.

Which is right for you?

This depends on your personal preferences.

The main differences between these styles of medicine are their perspectives on health and treatment. Conventional medicine operates from a biophysical perspective, while integrative takes a more holistic approach, and functional medicine uses a systems-biology approach. As evidence of the efficacy and safety of various medical approaches mounts, there is more and more overlap of these methods in order to best serve each patient.

Something we strongly recommend is to find a doctor who understands the type of treatment you want and aligns with your preferences. At SteadyMD, we have new patients fill out a quick quiz about their medical preferences, interests, and goals that will match the patient with the right doctor for them.

Not a patient yet? Take the free quiz and see which doc (and style of medicine) is your match!