What does the future hold for functional medicine? As pioneers and early adopters in the world of functional medicine, the Integrated Connections team remains committed to supporting the continued growth of the field of functional and integrative medicine.
Founder and CEO Lisa McDonald has observed several trends this past year and preceding years, as well as strong indicators of future development for the field of functional medicine. She describes the growth and shifts she’s witnessed, and how she envisions these trends playing out in the next year and beyond.
1. Going Mainstream
Two to three years ago, if you said the term “functional medicine” you’d possibly get some blank stares, maybe even a few scoffs. But functional medicine has made a name for itself over the past year, and awareness of functional and integrative medicine will continue to grow exponentially over the next year.
McDonald predicts a trajectory of continued recognition, demand, and growth for functional medicine physicians and practitioners.
Additionally, breaking into mainstream media is often the first step to achieving mainstream status, and functional medicine did that last year, including features on the Today show and some of the largest major metro area newspapers and outlets across the country.
As Integrated Connections’ Year-in-Review report reveals, job opportunities in functional medicine are growing in leadership roles, advanced practice (NP/PA), physician practice, and remote opportunities.
Other industry leaders, who are seeing the growth in patient demand first-hand, agree with McDonald’s vision for the future growth trajectory for the field of functional medicine.
“The public awareness of the benefits of using integrative, functional medicine or anti-aging medicine continues to grow. There is more demand for practitioners who are skilled and have completed a fellowship or certification in Integrative Medicine, Functional Medicine or Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. The clinical success with these modalities leads to word of mouth referrals and demand for practitioners with these skills,” said Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and author of The Wahls Protocol book, which includes research-backed strategies to manage multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases.
2. Increased Specialization
With the growth of functional medicine comes the need to sub-specialize into various focus areas of the field. Functional medicine practitioners treat patients who often require specialized knowledge in approaches to treating complex chronic illnesses and/or for optimizing health. According to Integrated Connections’ Year-in-Review report, there was a 75% increase in specialty opportunities for providers (i.e., Lyme, Mold, cancer) . Patient demand is rapidly increasing for specialized care. Therefore, focus areas for diseases, demographics and biological systems will begin to form and strengthen in their capabilities and evidence-based experience to more effectively treat the various chronic illnesses and other conditions that are challenging for the current conventional health model (fee-for-service, insurance-controlled) which only allows for 15-minute appointments and limited autonomy.
Each of these will have its own certifications and training to confirm expertise and experience in these areas.
These newly forming sub-specializations within the functional medicine field will include focusing on chronic diseases, autoimmune disorders, health optimization, and various systems and populations.
3. Lifestyle Medicine Integration
McDonald foresees Lifestyle Medicine as being one of the most significant areas that will thrive and grow, including within more mainstream settings. Lifestyle medicine encompasses many of the aspects of health and wellness that can prevent, maintain and improve one’s overall health status. Therefore, this will be a popular area of practice for functional medicine physicians and practitioners.
While there are preventive aspects of lifestyle medicine, and basic tenets that apply across the board (healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management etc.), lifestyle medicine can also support recovery with customized treatment plans designed to address the unique root-cause of a chronic illness, as well as the biological and symptomatic needs of the patient.
As the percentage of the population suffering from chronic illness continues to climb, the need to focus on preventive healthcare will increase also. Chronic and mental health conditions account for 90% of healthcare costs. Lifestyle medical interventions are effective at reducing incidences of chronic illness, and often many of the associated care costs also. Additionally, McDonald envisions that lifestyle medicine could most likely be adopted and integrated into more large health systems because lifestyle medicine programs are cost-effective and can be implemented and scaled relatively easily.
4. Practice Models – More Private Practices
While the growing specialty of Lifestyle Medicine may be increasingly integrated into larger practices and systems, private practice models are generally more aligned with the functional medicine approach to chronic illness and longevity care.
Therefore, although the volume of private practices nationwide has trended down over the past several years, functional medicine providers will continue to thrive in private practice settings where they can provide the most specialized care.
The private practice model enables functional medicine practitioners to provide a more personalized, root cause approach for patients, and it can be better for physicians too, offering a way to practice that’s less susceptible to causing burnout as conventional fee-for-service models of physician practice. For physicians who are truly ready and motivated to practice independently and autonomously, and have prepared appropriately, private practices will continue to be a viable and lucrative option, especially for physicians certified in functional medicine.
5. Recruitment Will Require New Approaches
The shifting trends in functional medicine will affect recruitment of physicians and clinicians in functional, integrative, and longevity medicine. As the field becomes more specialized, there will be a wider variety of openings available, with a smaller candidate pool for each practice opportunity.
Staffing shortages persist across the healthcare industry, and functional medicine will likely be no different, especially with recent growth in demand and need for patient-centric, personalized care. Therefore, practices and employers approach talent acquisition more aggressively and competitively than ever before. This will require new and different recruiting approaches, resources, and tactics.
Candidates’ Priorities & Personas are changing. As functional medicine becomes more specialized, candidates are becoming more varied in their motivations, practice preferences, scheduling needs, etc.
Some candidates may be more focused on flexibility, and/or schedules that offer telehealth or hybrid options, rather than choosing a traditional practice setting that requires 40+ hours working in an office.
A recent report from McKinsey & Company outlines several different types of “candidate personas” that are emerging now, post-pandemic. These candidate personas are not specific to healthcare, but certainly apply to our industry. Each type of candidate persona has different workplace priorities, and “their differences show that employers have to take a multifaceted approach to attract and retain talent,” said the report.
“The majority of roles in functional medicine today offer some degree of flexibility,” according to McDonald. “Compensation is important, of course, but it’s not necessarily the only deciding factor. Candidates today want and need a career that offers balance and purpose.” she said.
Personalized Medicine is the Future of Healthcare
Based upon all of these continued growth trends, McDonald is certain about increased demand for personalized healthcare. One key characteristic shared by all of these modalities (functional medicine, integrative medicine, longevity medicine, lifestyle medicine) – is that they are not “one-size-fits-all” approaches, according to McDonald.
“You can’t go to your average conventional primary care physician to get a long-term, personalized comprehensive treatment plan for Lyme disease or mold exposure, for example.”
McDonald offers guidance to systems and practices who wish to implement personalized medicine into their health service offerings.
“To reverse current trends in chronic illness, the healthcare industry must offer more personalized, patient-centered care in the future,” McDonald explained. “People are sicker than ever, chronic illnesses have reached unprecedented rates in the US, and the conventional fee-for-service model isn’t always conducive for healing these chronically ill patients, unfortunately.”
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Integrated Connections is a leading provider of career development, job search, and practice growth resources in functional and integrative medicine. We provide a number of professional services and tools to a variety of practitioners and medical practices, including small independent groups and large health systems. For career resources, visit our job search center, and for practice management and staffing resources, review our employer page.