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Functional Medicine – Coming to An Employer Near You

Emma Tekstra > Corporate HR  > Functional Medicine – Coming to An Employer Near You

Functional Medicine – Coming to An Employer Near You

At last, we’re starting to see healthcare solutions that will move the needle in reducing healthcare costs in the U.S. And more importantly, because these solutions act on the root cause of disease, they will actually improve employee health and productivity rather than just managing a diagnosis.

What are these solutions? These innovative companies are relying on the concept of “functional medicine”. They focus on lifestyle changes such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management to reverse chronic disease and eliminate expensive medications members may have been relying on for years. Yes, I said reverse, as in symptom-free!

Part of the disservice of conventional medicine is to make us think these conditions were just bad luck or bad genes and all we can do is minimize symptoms.

But every symptom has a root cause. If you have a headache, I can promise you the root cause is not a deficiency in Tylenol or Advil! Maybe you are dehydrated, skipped lunch, stressed about a deadline, or have a loved one in the hospital. Perhaps you are deficient in a mineral your body needs to function well such as Magnesium or Zinc. Maybe you have a food intolerance, or maybe a bacteria, virus, or parasite is reproducing in your gut emitting toxins that are traveling to your brain.

Headache is just one symptom. When you have several symptoms that follow a specific pattern a conventional doctor will put a label on you and diagnose a disease such as Type II diabetes, hypothyroidism, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ulcerative colitis. … the list goes on. This label results in a standard of care usually involving prescription medications, each of which leads to side effects with additional symptoms and so the dance begins.

You may feel vindicated when a label is put on your symptoms and a doctor takes charge to direct your care and suggest the next prescription will bring relief, which it might for a time. But your body is just getting more and more out of balance if the root cause is not being addressed. Meanwhile, your healthcare costs are skyrocketing with expensive drugs, ongoing testing and doctors’ visits, one for each set of symptoms.

A Better Way

In many parts of the world, employees are using a combination of conventional medicine with traditional medicine including herbalism (such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India), naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other modalities considered “alternative” in the U.S. Many traditional approaches are covered by health plans in other parts of the world but not so in the U.S. If you’ve got back pain and your insurance will cover pain meds but not the acupuncture recommended by your physical therapist, what are you going to do?

Functional medicine refers to a highly individualized and holistic approach to health, looking at the whole body and getting to the root cause of any set of symptoms including environmental issues such as toxins like mold, chemicals in the food you’re eating, or unresolved infections to name a few. It looks at how the body is functioning overall and combines conventional medicine only where needed while focusing on more natural approaches that will work synergistically with your body to reverse disease. It is based on the understanding that the human body has an amazing capacity to heal itself if you give it the right support and do not lead it into further unbalance with unnatural substances. Good nutrition and supplements are at the core, but many additional therapies are incorporated depending on the approach and expertise of the particular practitioner.

The problem is that functional medicine is out of reach for most employees as it is rarely covered by their health plan.

In order to get at the root cause, a functional medicine doctor requires a lot longer than the typical 15min appointment. They dig into every aspect of your life and look beyond the basic blood markers, checking how your various systems are functioning particularly your gut and detoxification (elimination) pathways.

Initial costs to diagnose what is going on are typically $1,000 to $2,000 but the prescription usually involves a specific healthy diet, high-quality supplements (a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest drugs for the conditions mentioned above), and some basic lifestyle changes. Some improvements can be seen in a matter of weeks, and a full reversal may take some months or longer; but the reversal is the aim, not symptom suppression which only leads to further degradation in your health. The return on that initial investment cannot be measured in dollars alone. You typically get your life back and feel better than you have in years.

Enter these start-up companies aiming to fill a critical need. Examples are Parsley Health (love the name!), Twin Health (named for the digital twin of the individual member they create through lifestyle data mining and then using machine learning techniques to identify what foods or lifestyle changes will most impact the member), Day Two, Betr Health, AndHealth, Digbi Health, Ciba Health, MyMee and many more. There are differences between them of course such as their focus on certain conditions, incorporating epigenetics and/or microbiome analysis, approach to lifestyle coaching, and nutrition advice. It will be exciting to watch how this space develops over the next couple of years.

Even more exciting was recently hearing Dr. Mark Hyman on a podcast by the Business Group on Health. Dr. Hyman is considered the flag bearer for functional medicine in the U.S. and is currently chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine. I am hoping this starts a movement of employers tackling employee health and well-being with solutions that are actually going to work.

Emma Tekstra
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