Functional Medicine 101 Part 2: Patient-Centered Model vs Disease-Centered

Model Patients Are More Than A Collection of Symptoms

In the first part of this three-part series of articles on the basics of Functional Medicine, we looked at the traditional medical model and why I (and many others) feel a new approach is necessary. A great deal of the difference has to do with the way medical practitioners think about health. Unlike what many medical practitioners would tell you if they were honest about what they’re thinking, people who come in for treatment are more than a collection of symptoms or a sort of puzzle to figure out. This is another fundamental difference in the approach Functional Medicine takes.

In this, Part 2 of my introduction to Functional Medicine, I want to highlight one of the biggest differences between the traditional medical model and the Functional Medicine model. Simply put, Functional Medicine’s entire approach is based on the idea that health is not simply the absence of disease. This is a major paradigm shift from most conventional models of thought. All too often and largely because of tight time constraints, a conventional medical practitioner is forced to render the best possible diagnosis under less than ideal conditions. They have to look for the disease, identifying it by the symptoms, and seek to fix it with a certain prescribed protocol for that disease or condition. But patients have whole histories, not just isolated symptoms, and in this model it can be easy to miss underlying conditions. The human body is complex and wonderfully made, and Functional Medicine recognizes that hereditary, environmental, and lifestyle factors all play important roles in the causes behind symptoms. The Functional Medicine approach lets us look at the origins, prevention, and treatment of chronic illnesses rather than being limited to acute, conventional care.

If a patient comes into the emergency room with a broken arm, timely conventional care is wonderful—we don't need to know the patient’s entire history to treat the immediate problem. The disease-centered model is great for straightforward issues such as this: they’re clear-cut, and the answers can be too. But what happens when the problem isn’t so obvious? What if the symptoms aren’t obvious, or they’re hard to uncover in a very limited consultation? In these situations, disease-centered models can be less than ideal.

Looking at Patients as Whole Individuals

Functional Medicine takes diagnosing what is wrong to another level by looking at a patient as a whole individual—a person with a unique genetic profile who lives in a certain environment and lives a certain lifestyle. Functional Medicine practitioners can often take more time with their patients to get a more complete history and a better understanding of the patient’s background, environment, and lifestyle. Again, the huge game-changer is the idea that health is not just the absence of disease; it is the presence of vigor and vitality. Instead of focusing on “fixing” an acute symptom, Functional Medicine practitioners seek to address all of a patient’s care needs and provide unique and effective treatments to promote long-term health and wellness.

Treatment for the Whole Person

Just as people aren’t collections of symptoms, the medical troubles that plague us are more than acute conditions based on simple causes. One hundred years ago, the greatest plague to humanity faced was infectious diseases: conditions caused by one or more identifiable pathogens that infected the body and caused acute symptoms. The advent of antibiotics was a massive game-changer for humanity and the field of medicine, and it opened a doorway to the modern medical model. Because of this fundamental way of thinking about disease—that it’s caused by certain specific pathogens for which we just need to find the right drug—the traditional medical establishment finds itself searching for answers when confronted by the plagues of the Twentieth Century. In the developed world, infectious disease is no longer the mail culprit—it’s chronic illness. Chronic illnesses are different than acute illnesses because they persist for long periods of time, and they are not typically infectious diseases. They are enduring conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and countless others. And while some of these are mortal threats like heart disease, many others fall into a different category of being life-limiting.

Where Functional Medicine stands apart is how it looks at these conditions. Instead of searching for a drug to eliminate a specific symptom of these conditions, Functional Medicine takes body systems, environmental factors, lifestyle, and many other elements into consideration. Practitioners desire to learn why a person is having symptoms, not to identify the specific “disease” afflicting them.

You are more than your symptoms. You are more than the sum of your parts.

You are a wonderfully complex organism! An overly-simplistic approach to health that simply throws a drug at your symptoms to cover over a metabolic process gone wrong isn’t a long term solution, and that means it isn’t the way to solve the chronic illnesses that some studies say affect as many as 50% of Americans. And that’s why I love Functional Medicine—because it offers a new way of thinking about health and “disease” that takes the whole person into consideration.