Since medical schools have taken a more active interest in teaching complementary and alternative medicine in the last few years according to U.S. News and World Report, the recent opening of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine should not seem like an unusual event. Nonetheless, this opening makes the Clinic the first academic medical center in the United States to warmly welcome functional medicine. The Center for Functional Medicine is a collaboration between the Clinic and The Institute for Functional Medicine.

Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of The Institute for Functional Medicine, is serving as the director of the new center. You may recognize Dr. Hyman as the physician friend of the Clintons who helped Bill Clinton refocus his health regimen after Mr. Clinton’s quadruple bypass surgery in 2004. According to The Deseret News, Dr. Hyman made some bold predictions that got the attention of Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic who also is a cardiac surgeon. In Hyman’s own words, allowing him to create a program at the country’s top medical center for heart procedures “would cut the number of angioplasties and bypasses in half, and reduce hospital admissions.” He further told Cosgrove, “hire me and I’ll do what I can to put you out of business.” Hyman said his approach would be to optimize functional medicine by teaching patients to care for themselves so they could avoid the hospital altogether. If these predictions come true, it would decrease patient demand for some Clinic services but enhance healthcare offerings in other ways.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans spent more than $2.7 trillion annually on healthcare in 2011 with more than 80% of it ($2.16 trillion) focused on chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Most often, chronic conditions are managed with medications and procedures but not cured. Functional medicine doctors like Hyman take a different approach. The Cleveland Clinic explains that the foundation for functional medicine is the evidence that lifestyle factors (e.g., nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress levels, relationships and genetics) are major contributors to disease. Instead of managing symptoms, providers of functional medicine work with chronic disease patients to address these underlying causes of illness to better prevent, treat and reverse disease.

Critics’ descriptions of functional medicine range from pseudoscience to quackery given some of the studies supporting its use lacked the rigor of standard scientific methods. This being said, functional medicine and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine are worthy of further exploration. As Cosgrove points out in his book, The Cleveland Clinic Way, medicine must consider new approaches to understanding and treating diseases, because chronic diseases “are now so prevalent and so costly that they’re threatening to destroy America’s broader economic health.”


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti