A few years ago I was working in a walk-in clinic, and a woman, I’ll call Sara, came in for concerns regarding vulvodynia (chronic, unexplained pain of the vagina). Vulvodynia was not within the usual scope of practice in the walk-in clinic where we focused mostly on minor illnesses and injuries.

It was a quiet morning at the walk-in clinic, so I agreed to talk with Sara. Her story unfolded as a long and tragic history of pain and a disturbing account of seeing many specialists who were unable to help her. Sara even had a hysterectomy as recommended by one of the medical experts, and yet her symptoms remained.

While Sara’s story was unique, it was also similar to many patients I have spoken with who suffer from chronic, debilitating symptoms, have consulted with experts, and continue to suffer without answers or hope.

Disturbing trends in healthcare.

We are getting sicker. Children today are growing up with a decreased life expectancy for the first time in generations. Healthcare costs have sky-rocketed. Health care workers are under tremendous stress. And people with multiple health concerns are rushed through their appointments.

As a family nurse practitioner, I wasn’t willing to accept that we don’t have more to offer people who need our help. We have to do better. There must be a better way.

I’ve always viewed my patients through a holistic lens, but it wasn’t until I came across functional medicine when I knew I had found a scientific, systems-based approach that made sense and showed promise for helping people who were not being helped by conventional medicine.

Functional medicine (FM) addresses health through an investigative, systems based approach, utilizing cutting edge science.

Functional medicine came about in the early 1990’s. In the last few years, it’s gaining popularity due to the need for an effective approach to today’s growing population who are suffering from chronic health problems. Functional medicine is also growing due to the many doctors, and other clinicians who are drawn to functional medicine in the same way as I have, to meet the needs of their patients in a more meaningful way.

Functional medicine is leading the charge to evolve medicine.

In September 2014, the Cleveland Clinic opened a Center for Functional Medicine in collaboration with the Institute for Functional Medicine. Since it’s opening, the Cleveland Clinic, Center for Functional Medicine has expanded in an attempt to meet growing demand. We are likely to see additional prestigious centers of medicine following the lead of the Cleveland Clinic soon.

Meanwhile, clinicians are creating their functional medicine practices independent from the dictates of conventional health care systems and insurance companies that value production and profit over health. We are uninspired by the conventional medicine approach of focusing on production over health and prescribing medications to mask symptoms rather than identify and address root causes.

How functional medicine differs from conventional medicine.

Your FM clinician will take the time to get to know you and your history. Nutritional and lifestyle recommendations will be identified that will help you to reach your health goals. Lab tests will be carefully selected to evaluate your health and monitor your progress. Treatment protocols will be designed to address your unique circumstances and physiology.

Functional medicine requires a partnership between the patient and the clinician. As a patient, you will take an active role in your health. You will need to be willing to optimize your nutrition and your sleep. You will be encouraged to address stress and include regular exercise into your daily routine. You will be guided to minimize your exposure to environmental toxins.

Medicine is evolving.

I visited with Sara for almost 30 minutes. Toward the end of our visit, I asked if she was aware of functional medicine. She lit up and said yes. Her sister was working with a functional medicine doctor and had been trying to get Sara to work with her too. I encouraged Sara to consider seeing her sister’s functional medicine doctor.

I never heard from Sara again. I hope she found the help she was looking for. Every day I meet people like Sara. People who need help and aren’t finding it in conventional medicine. Fortunately, functional medicine is becoming better known; more clinicians are studying functional medicine and starting up their own practices. Medicine is evolving.