Integrative medicine (IM) ‘reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient, focuses on the whole person, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic and lifestyle approaches, healthcare professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing’.1 The IM approach is holistic and considers spiritual, social and lifestyle issues, which are increasingly being recognised as important drivers of chronic disease and ill-health. IM refers to integrative medicine modalities, which involves integrating complementary medicine (CM) into conventional healthcare using an evidence-based approach.
CM refers to a broad set of healthcare practices that are not part of that country’s own traditional or conventional healthcare and are not fully integrated into the dominant healthcare system.2 CMs include biologically-based products, mind-body therapies and traditional medicine systems.3 Use of CM in Australia has remained consistently high for decades, with nationally representative surveys conducted in 2007 and 2017 reporting that 63–68% of respondents used CM in the preceding 12 months.4,5 CM use is higher in people who have chronic disease, high pharmaceutical use, report failure of conventional medical treatments or wish to reduce side effects from treatment,4,6-8 signalling unmet healthcare needs.
Risks from using CM may be direct (eg drug–herb interaction), indirect (eg delayed diagnosis/treatment)9,10 or financial, as most CM use incurs out-of-pocket costs. There are consistently low rates of disclosure of CM use to physicians. Reasons for non-disclosure include lack of inquiry from physicians, fear of disapproval and belief that physicians lack CM knowledge.11
Conversely, the evidence base for effectiveness of CMs is growing rapidly,12 and CMs are increasingly being included in clinical guidelines.13,14 Many modalities demonstrate excellent safety profiles,15-17 and may reduce the use of, and therefore risk from, pharmaceuticals such as opioids, and reduce healthcare use overall.18 Statutory regulation of three modalities in Australia (osteopathy, chiropractic and Chinese medicine) provides additional safeguards.19
It is important to acknowledge patient preferences around use of traditional medicine, which refers to health practices and beliefs indigenous to different cultures,2 and has a long history of use in many cultures for maintaining health and wellbeing. These include Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medicine.
All general practitioners (GPs) should be able to demonstrate basic skills and knowledge of IM due to the high prevalence of community use and need for informed decision-making. IM encompasses important elements of quality general practice (such as whole-person care and patient-centredness) and is not separate to general practice. A study of Australian GPs found that many GPs consider that the practice of IM starts with the foundation of good general practice.20 Other studies report that patients want their GPs to be informed about CM,21 and that both patients and GPs see the value of a team-based model of IM, often with the GP as the clinical leader, coordinator and referrer to CM practitioners.21-24 Practising IM also improves patient satisfaction and the patient–practitioner relationship. 25,26