labyrinth-2037286_1920by Glenn Sabin

In 2012, I wrote a piece describing the integrative health community as being one camp comprising many tents. The article discussed the various sub-groups within the field, including: integrative medicine, functional medicine, holistic medicine, restorative medicine, and lifestyle medicine.

I posited then, with numerous ‘tents’ falling under the integrative health camp, that newbie (integrative) health consumers often have difficulty clearly differentiating between numerous names and the nomenclature, thus creating a perplexing branding problem.

Today, it’s still perplexing.

There are minor and some significant differences that distinguish the various tents within this vibrant and growing campsite. However, there are more commonalities than differences in these approaches. After all, clinical intakes, assessments, medical delivery, and educational philosophies largely comprise the following: stress reduction; physical activity; plant-based/plant-strong diet; restorative sleep; health creation over disease care; root cause resolution; and select, well-placed nutraceuticals.

I certainly understand the distinct and important issues of inter-disciplinary teamwork approaches in utilizing whole systems of care. There is no denying the ongoing tensions within the campsite—but I will save that for another post; or perhaps take the smart approach by avoiding it altogether.

Regardless of how you describe the care you deliver, descriptors within the field—over the decades—have evolved from ‘holistic medicine’ to ‘alternative medicine’ to ‘complementary alternative medicine’ to ‘integrative medicine’ to today’s umbrella brand of ‘integrative health and medicine’.

Let’s look at how various names have trended in popularity according to Google Trends, based on global Google searches, for the following five search terms:

  • Alternative Medicine (AM)
  • Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)
  • Integrative Medicine (IM)
  • Integrative Health (IH)
  • Functional Medicine (FM)

Notable is that searches for CAM are down by three-quarters, while searches for IM show a decrease of 27 percent, and AM (discussed in more detail below), in comparison to the other four search terms, take a precipitous drop of over 80 percent in worldwide (Google) search volume in the last decade.

On the upswing is ‘functional medicine’ with a 50 percent growth within the search set, and ‘integrative health’ with a 25 percent increase.

Now let’s look at trending and comparisons for the following five search terms (note that Google Trends only allows comparison of five search terms):

  • Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)
  • Integrative Medicine (IM)
  • Integrative Health (IH)
  • Functional Medicine (FM)
  • Lifestyle Medicine (LM)

When AM is removed from the data set the picture changes dramatically. This graph illustrates a 50 percent drop in CAM searches, a more than 10 percent drop for IM, a 10 percent drop for IH, and 20 percent gain for FM. LM goes from none-existent (in terms of a searched term) in 2004 to 6 percent based on partial data from 2015.

I postulate that much of the CAM, integrative medicine, and alternative medicine search share have splintered into various subsets of searches for which there is not yet enough volume to analyze through Google Trends. The uptick of FM and LM may account for a sizeable portion of this shift. The name IH has not yet been embraced globally, though it has become the preferred term for many within the U.S. industry, with some favoring the title ‘integrative health and medicine’.

The increase in FM search queries is no surprise to me. The FM industry has done a vastly superior job putting FM on the map. Simply put, FM has been superior and more coordinated in telling its story of ‘root cause resolution’ through functional measures and lifestyle medicine approaches.

The industry of FM has heretofore been largely shaped—and grown—by the influential and respected Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). FM has enjoyed a high level of concision in its messaging, and has been more savvy and consistent with its overarching marketing and communications than any other tent within the camp of IH.

This growth began with Susan and Dr. Jeffrey Bland’s co-founding of the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM) in 1991, created as a division of Bland’s Healthcomm publishing company.

It has not been lost on this marketer how Metagenics (now owned by Amway parent, Alticor), the nutraceutical company at which Bland served as president chief scientific officer for a number of years, after Healthcomm merged with the manufacturer in 2000, leveraged its considerable innovation in content creation and marketing know-how into IFM’s spectacularly popular annual conference. Early on, Metagenics essentially helped build a conference around its core brand then invited everyone into its house. Brilliant.

Today IFM is an independent non-profit organization and continues to consistently create and deliver high quality content—including a strong learning and certification curriculum—which consistently brings new FM providers into the field.

While IM has the University of Arizona Fellowship—there are several other fellowships across the field including AIHM’s new program directed by Dr. Tieraona Low Dog—IFM has created a unified brand for FM. As a result the organization has been able to out-market and out-message the other tents under the integrative health umbrella, let alone its chief rival in the space, Academy for Anti-aging Medicine (A4M), as well as an increasing number of smaller organizations.

AM has been on a steady decline over the last decade, and the name—in my view—has long outlived its usefulness. AM, while still searched for, on Google, twice as often as IM, is a term mostly used in Asia and Africa for describing indigenous medicine. In the U.S., most searchers associate the term AM with medical marijuana and alternative cancer treatments (in lieu of standard of care interventions).

Shifting Trends, But Still a Branding Problem

Name_1While it’s interesting to view search trends of the subcategories of integrative health and medicine, and the steady rise of functional medicine, the biggest takeaway I see is that the industry continues to have a significant branding challenge. There is no denying the inexorable march of integrative health and medicine. We’ve reached the tipping point. But power is always in numbers and organization. Better coordination of intellectual and fiscal resources within the camp could produce a much larger, more powerful united front for every camper on the planet.