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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Lum

What Is The Difference Between Functional Medicine And Conventional Medicine?

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Many of my patients find out what functional medicine is for the first time when they arrive in my office. Aside from a brief checkup every few years, interaction with doctors, hospitals, and emergency rooms are minimal for most people.

It is when a person begins to have symptoms or wants to reduce their risk of disease that they encounter the full complexity of the medical system for the first time. It can be hard to know what kind of doctor to go to when it is not an emergency situation.

a blue background with test tubes. text overlay that says the difference between functional medicine and conventional medicine. Dr. Brian Lum Functional Healthcare Institute

Different Doctors For Different Needs

There is still the idea in the west that there is a great divide between conventional medicine and traditional or functional medicine. As cancer treatment centers are integrating traditional methods of healing and doctors are increasingly referring outpatients to those in the functional medicine field, it is becoming increasingly clear that the two paradigms are not mutually exclusive.

For trauma related injury and life-threatening conditions (like a sudden heart attack or stroke), there is no place better than a hospital to rapidly stabilize a patient.

This conventional approach to medicine is also indispensable when differentiating a life-threatening condition from symptoms that are benign - which matters when you want to know if you are having a migraine or are experiencing the onset of a potentially fatal case of meningitis.

In other areas of health - like preventative medicine, long-term care, chronic conditions, and inflammatory diseases - the conventional medicine structure can be inadequate.

Many patients do not fit into the standard mold of a diagnosis. These patients can find themselves in a medical ’no man's land’ where they are not given adequate treatment - sometimes it is even insinuated that it is 'all in their head.'

There are many reasons a person may not be a good fit for an exclusively conventional approach. A person may not be able to take standard medication due to severe reactions. Some patients want to have a longer appointment with a doctor to learn the different ways they can prevent something like heart disease.

There are also patients who have exhausted the conventional health care system and wound up no better than when they started. Others do not want to take standard pharmaceuticals if they can help it.

Differences in Ideology

The conventional medicine practitioner’s appointments are generally brief and intended to classify symptoms into a diagnosis.

They would then prescribe treatment, usually in the form of pharmaceutical medication or surgery. Symptoms are targeted and then suppressed.

A Doctor and a Patient During a Functional Medicine Evaluation

Because so much of the focus in conventional medicine is to name your symptoms and to match drugs or surgery based on that diagnosis - significant improvement for those with chronic disease is less frequent because the cause is so rarely addressed.

Functional medicine seeks to treat the entire person by filling the gap that is sometimes left between conventional medicine and the patient.

What is causing your symptoms is the primary focus in functional medicine, the second focus is to restore overall health. By finding out why you got sick, the functional medicine doctor seeks to rebalance the body and address the initial strain that caused your symptoms to manifest in the first place.

The initial strain may be in the form of digestive dysfunction, hormone imbalance, virus, food allergy, bacterial infection, fungal infection, or toxin accumulation.

Restoring your overall health is crucial to reduce or eliminate your symptoms so you can enjoy the highest quality of living.

WHAT illness do you have vs. WHY you got sick

Perhaps the overriding difference between the conventional and the functional medicine approach is a matter of premise. Conventional medicine is primarily concerned with the ‘what.’ What is it? What are your symptoms called (your diagnosis)? What medications will it take to suppress your symptoms? What type of surgery do you need?

Functional medicine is focused on the ‘why.’ Why are you still sick? Why hasn’t your body recovered? Why did you develop this chronic illness in the first place? Determining the cause of your symptoms is the first step in getting you back to health.

What a Functional Medicine Appointment Looks Like

A functional medicine appointment is generally much longer (lasting at least an hour) than an appointment at your primary care physician. During the appointment patient history, family history, previous testing, current medications and supplements are all reviewed.

The patient has the opportunity to go into detail about their symptoms. The goal of the appointment is to assess imbalances in the body using diagnostic testing to determine the best direction forward.

Various treatments can include lifestyle changes, dietary regimens, and the use of nutritional medicines designed to target the deficiencies or imbalances that were determined using diagnostic testing. These treatments are extremely effective, supported by research and generally very gentle on the body.

Not all functional medicine practitioners are the same. There are those who claim to treat the ‘whole person’ that simply swap pharmaceuticals for supplements. Using supplements and diet to treat only symptoms is still a superficial treatment. Be wary of those who proclaim that they know the ‘only thing' you need to heal from your chronic condition. A uniform treatment plan for a condition that pays no attention to the health status of the patient is bound to be ineffective.

The Inadequacy of Generic Treatments

The power of functional medicine comes from why a specific natural therapy is used and how it is personalized to suit the individual.

Let’s use high blood pressure (hypertension) as an example. There is some good research suggesting CoQ10 and magnesium can beneficially lower blood pressure, so some practitioners may use these supplements to treat hypertension.

This kind of nutrient supplementation may or may not work in an individual patient - it all depends on what is causing the high blood pressure. If it is a magnesium or CoQ10 deficiency, then it may help - but in many cases of hypertension, that is not the case.

If the person has an underlying liver or adrenal issue, magnesium or CoQ10 will not work in reducing the high blood pressure - and may delay the patient in getting the right type of care.

When expertly prescribed, natural therapies work because they can restore optimal function and balance in the body.

The Path to Health

Most likely your path to full health will be achieved with a blend of the conventional and the functional.

A woman Backpacking in Nature

Perhaps your primary care physician has flagged certain test results as indicative of a health risk, you then may come to a functional medicine practitioner to get additional testing and further guidance on diet, lifestyle interventions, and possible genetic interpretation.

The end goal is for you to achieve your optimal health using whatever tools available. Be your own advocate and never be satisfied with partial explanations. Your symptoms should never be dismissed and written off as unimportant.

You deserve to be taken seriously, and your health made a priority by your doctor.

If you would like to speak to me to ask questions about functional medicine or how I can help you, please schedule a Free 15 Minute Consultation or call or text my office at 913-728-5291.

My clinic offers functional medicine appointments as well as manual chiropractic treatments. I do online consultations for those out-of-state or outside of the United States.


If you think that you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.  No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Nor should you ever delay seeking medical advice or treatment due to the information contained on this Website.


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