Integrative medicine, an approach to treating patients that aims to address the "whole person," is a burgeoning field in health care -- and for good reason.
Integrative therapies have been found to relieve pain and anxiety in cancer patients, to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans, and to hold promise in preventing and treating heart disease.
Now, some promising new research suggests that an integrative medicine approach may be effective in treating chronic pain, stress and depression -- and in helping people feel empowered to take charge of their health.
For the study, researchers analyzed survey data from 369 patients over the course of six months, collected from the Patients Receiving Integrative Medicine Interventions Effectiveness Registry (PRIMIER), the first-ever registry of integrative medicine patients.
They found that use of integrative medicine significantly increased "patient activation," which refers to a patient's belief that they have the knowledge, skills and confidence to take meaningful actions to improve their health and maintain self-care. Over the six months, the number of patient with low activation levels decreased, and those with higher levels of activation increased by 12 percent.
Patients also reported reduced stress and depression. Among those being treated for chronic pain, patients reported significant decreases in pain severity and a one-third reduction in how much their pain interfered with their quality of life.
"We are encouraged by these early results," the study's lead author, Dr. Donald I. Abrams, an integrative oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, said in a statement. He added that the PRIMIER registry will help clinicians identify some of the most effective practices in the still-new field of integrative medicine.
Integrative medicine treatments include complementary therapies like acupuncture, yoga, chiropractic, nutrition, massage and mindfulness, and stresses the relationship between the patient and the practitioner. This is part of a growing trend: 33 percent of U.S. adults used complementary health approaches in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, and the number of American hospitals that offer complementary therapies has doubled in less than a decade. That said, acceptance has only grown so far: many insurance providers still do not cover these treatments.
"It's no longer considered fringe," Dr. Esther Sternberg, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health and author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, told WebMD. "Medical students are being taught to think in an integrated way about the patient, and ultimately, that will improve the management of illness at all levels."
The new study was released by the Bravewell Collaborative, a foundation that advocates for better healthcare through integrative medicine.