Fifteen years ago Nancy Bechtol learned she needed to lower her high blood pressure. She could take the route of most patients and start prescription blood pressure medication, or take the less traveled path and heal her body using a more holistic approach.
“By the time I actually got to see my primary care doctor, I would be so wound up, no wonder my blood pressure would be high,” Bechtol recalled.
Bechtol decided it was time to learn the root cause of her elevated blood pressure, not just take a pill to lower it. Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and yoga, had helped her previous chronic back pain. A search for a solution to her high blood pressure led her to Dr. Theri Griego Raby, who is affiliated with Northwestern Memorial Hospital. However, Raby is not your typical primary care provider.
Raby practices integrative medicine, which combines the most recent scientific breakthroughs in Western medicine with ancient medicine from around the world to optimize the health of patients.
Integrative medicine physicians not only look at people physically and physiologically, but also inquire into an individual’s energy level, mental status, spirituality and biochemical measurements. By looking at all aspects of the human system, an integrative medicine doctor can come up with a plan to treat a patient on all dimensions.
In addition to looking at an individual’s current health, integrative medicine practitioners also look back into the patient’s history, sometimes going all the way back to the beginning of life, when a patient was in utero, to find out why a patient is not at optimal health.
“Just today I had a patient with adult acne and gastrointestinal issues, who I wanted to know if she was born via c-section or vaginally because that plays a role in your well-being and it determines the microbiome in your gut,” explains Raby.
This detailed approach of integrative medicine drew Kimberlee Ovnik to Dr. Robert Feely, an osteopathic doctor at the Feely Center for Optimal Health. At 45, Ovnik gave birth to her son, Kenny T., who was born with Down syndrome. Having a son with special needs motivated Ovnik to seek out a more balanced approach to healthcare for her son and herself.
“If my knee hurts, I want to find out what is making my knee hurt. Don’t just treat the knee,” says Ovnik. “It’s about getting to the root of the problem.”
Ovnik takes Kenny T. to Feely for cranial sacral therapy, treatments that work to untwist the muscles, membranes and tissue that are behind the eyes and around the ears to allow cervical fluid to flow more freely. Ovnik says this therapy has diminished Kenny T.’s physical characteristics of Down syndrome,
making his eyes more symmetric. Ovnik also likes that integrative medicine empowers the patient to be a part of the process.
“People are so busy, and it’s easier for some people to just take a pill and be done with it. The integrative approach takes work on the patient’s part to be educated,” says Ovnik.
Raby agrees that educating patients is a big part of integrative medicine.
“We don’t practice ‘alternative medicine.’ We don’t use that term,” Raby says. “When you talk about integrative medicine, I like to say that it is part of an educational, academic process, so education is really, really important to what we are doing. We empower you to understand what we are doing and decode what we do when it comes to understanding tests and a diagnosis.”
Beyond regular, routine primary care appointments, integrative medicine practices can be a safe haven for “gap” patients—individuals Western medicine does not know what to do with, typically those with chronic fatigue and chronic pain.
“A lot of it has to do with their stress, their sleep and their nutrition,” says Raby. “We look at functional medicine tests. We can look at food allergies. We look at intercellular vitamin levels and in the T-cells. There are a lot of in-depth things we do.”
Raby hopes all physicians will go back to practicing good medicine, and the terms “integrative” versus “internal” medicine will go away. It’s not about how many patients you see in a day or how many you many patients you get in and get out, but about really understanding what is at the depth of a person’s illness, she says.
Today Bechtol is proud to say she no longer has high blood pressure and she does not take any prescription medications. She believes integrative medicine and the approach that physicians like Raby offer have helped her to reach her optimal level of health.
Katie Bogey is a patient experience consultant at Rush University Medical Center and recently completed Yoga Six’s 200-hour yoga teacher training.