Integrative medicine is often seen in our culture to be for the wealthy, involving expensive treatments that low-income patients cannot afford.

Integrative medicine is often seen in our culture to be for the wealthy, involving expensive supplements and treatments that low-income patients cannot afford.

Yet, many integrative treatments are not only more effective but also more cost-efficient.

In fact, many community clinics and other practices are already successfully using these strategies with underserved populations.

There are many different definitions of integrative medicine, but to many people, integrative health care is, first and foremost, holistic.

Holistic means addressing all of the various aspects of health, including nutrition, physical activity, spirituality, resilience, environment, relationships and sleep.

It also means building a partnership with patients, so that improving health is a collaborative process that is empowering and meets the individual’s needs.

A holistic focus is on wellness, prevention of illness and nurturing the body’s ability to heal itself whenever possible using a wide variety of modalities.

It is important for the underserved to have access to integrative health care.

I would argue that it is even more essential that the poor and marginalized have access to integrative health care than those with more resources and privilege.

We Must Serve the Underserved

The poor struggle to meet their basic needs—access to affordable, healthy food, a safe place to live, opportunities for work and an environment that is free of pollutants.

The underserved are primarily people of color and other individuals who suffer from oppression due to their sexual identity, religion, gender or other reasons. We know that living with oppression leads to more stress and poorer health outcomes, including chronic medical conditions.

An integrative approach to health care can help reduce these health disparities. Let’s face it; this is where conventional medicine could use some help! Integrative health care enhances resiliency and employs modalities, such as massage, that lead to better overall health and reduced stress.

For chronic diseases, such as diabetes, an integrative approach has a broader impact on overall health.

For example, we approach nutrition not only from the perspective of lowering blood sugar, but also reducing inflammation and increasing intake of healthy nutrients to prevent other ailments associated with diabetes such as cardiovascular disease.

A current topic of discussion in conventional health care is the opioid epidemic and the management of chronic pain.

This is an arena where an integrative approach can have a tremendous impact. We have a cadre of modalities such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition and manual medicine—including massage therapy—that has been shown in research to reduce chronic pain.

In addition, we know that a holistic approach that includes such mind-body modalities as mindfulness and imagery can improve quality of life. We have so much more than pharmaceuticals to offer our patients that can have a meaningful impact on chronic disease and suffering.

Working Toward the Integrative Approach

I am president of the board of an organization working to make integrative health care available to all Americans.

Integrative Medicine for the Underserved (IM4US) is a nonprofit organization that was founded by a small group of very committed family practice physicians providing primary care to the underserved.

They strongly believed that integrative health care should be accessible to their patients as well as the wealthy.

In 2009, this group of physicians were attending a meeting at the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Conference when they found they all had a common interest: providing integrative medicine for the underserved. Subsequently, they created a special interest group within the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine.

The group invited others and began to meet by phone to support each other and share how they provided integrative medicine to the patients they saw in their community clinics.

After meeting initially through monthly conference calls, their first conference was held in Santa Rosa, California, in 2011. They thought they would be lucky to have 50 people attend but were pleasantly surprised to find it was standing room only. The room had filled with a number of health care providers, including massage therapists, all interested in providing care to the underserved.

A movement was born. This success led eventually to the creation of a nonprofit called IM4US with the following mission statement:

“Integrative Medicine for the Underserved is a collaborative, multidisciplinary group of people committed to affordable, accessible integrative health care for all. Through outreach, education, research and advocacy, we support those dedicated to promoting health in underserved populations. Together we work to shift the current paradigm towards wellness, prevention, patient empowerment and self-care.”

We believe:

  • Health care is a right.
  • Optimal health care focuses on wellness as much as on treating disease.
  • Optimal health care addresses mind, body and spirit.
  • That the social determinants of health must be addressed.
  • In the power of integrating diverse health care modalities and disciplines.
  • Underserved patients and those providing their care need unique kinds of support.
  • Collaboration and sharing improves patient outcomes and inspires providers to remain whole-heartedly engaged in this work.

Justice & Equity

In this political climate, access to affordable health care is a contentious topic. Further changes to the Affordable Care Act could leave even more Americans without health care.

It is our job as an organization not only to advocate for affordable health care for all but also advocate for access to the whole range of integrative health providers, including massage therapists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, herbalists and many others.

We have partnered with the Integrative Health Policy Consortium to advocate for policy changes that support an interdisciplinary integrative approach. Our organization offers expertise and a voice for the underserved in this partnership.

In fact, our next conference will be focused on policy. It will take place at George Washington University in Washington DC June 21-24, 2018, and is preliminarily entitled “Justice and Equity in Policy and Practice”.

While we are in Washington D.C., we will interact, learn, educate and make connections with organizations, policymakers and legislators working to attain health equity.

It is our hope that those who attend the conference will have the opportunity to gain the tools they need to take action either nationally, or in their own communities and organizations.

Join Us

The IM4US annual conference is a unique educational experience for all healing professionals to learn about affordable integrative approaches to common health conditions, share evidence-based best integrative practices, and be part of a like-minded community for activism around integrative health for the underserved.

Most of the educational opportunities that currently exist on integrative health are geared toward physicians in private practice with less of a focus on an interdisciplinary health care team and caring for the underserved.

We offer reduced rates to make it affordable for all professions to attend, and we have some opportunities for financial aid. We encourage massage therapists to participate in our conference by attending or presenting.

In addition, we welcome you to join our organization. Benefits include educational opportunities, being a part of a supportive like-minded interdisciplinary community, and an opportunity to advocate for integrative health care for the underserved.

Editor’s note: MASSAGE Magazine welcomes guest editorials on topics of interest to massage therapists, including counter-points to published editorials. Send an email to edit@massagemag.com to request more information if you are interested in contributing a guest editorial.

About the Author

Priscilla Abercrombie, PhD, RN, NP, AHN-BC, NBC-HCW, is board president of Integrative Medicine for the Underserved, a national organization committed to affordable, accessible integrative health care for everyone. She has a doctorate in nursing and is a women’s health nurse practitioner. She has provided care for the underserved for over 30 years. In her integrative practice, Women’s Health & Healing, in San Anselmo, California, she offers women’s health consultations, coaching and integrative imagery.

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