As I’m sitting in the waiting room for what feels like hours, I anxiously focus more and more on my symptoms – the headache, the GI upset, the chronic back pain, the heart palpitations, my high blood pressure... Just waiting in the doctor’s office is giving me anxiety. In a conventional doctor’s office, I would meet the doctor for all of 10 minutes – racing through my list of symptoms as the doctor looks at my patient profile on his computer, takes my blood pressure and says ‘Mhmm, it’s elevated,” and then tells me to do the following: “Reduce your stress, get more exercise, and take this prescription for your anxiety & another one for your high blood pressure.” I barely get a thank you in before the door closes and I’m left to my own thoughts. The thought that is loudest is, “What am I supposed to do now?”
Does this sound familiar?
A study released in 2007 showed that the median time length for patients to talk to their doctors at appointments was 5.3 minutes. This amount of time was even lower for minority groups who go to inner city solo practices, 1.8 minutes.
How is anyone supposed to fully understand a person’s needs in under two minutes? The short answer is they can’t. All a doctor can do is determine the acute symptoms that a patient exhibits and find the most direct path to resolve those symptoms. This can lead to over-prescribing and a lack of clear guidance on preventative measures. Functional medicine takes an entirely different approach.
The Functional Medicine Approach
Functional Medicine is a holistic approach to healthcare that focuses on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of chronic disease, rather than simply treating symptoms. One of the key pillars of functional medicine is to provide client-centered care that works to address the underlying root cause of a disease or symptom. The word Functional means “relating to the way in which something works or operates”. I personally also like the definition of “designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive”. This means that functional medicine aims to understand how all of your biological systems are operating and interacting with each other, not just the one specific area with a problem. In doing so, a practitioner can better identify how and why your symptoms are showing up. Then, instead of prescribing a medication to address your symptoms, you are able to build an actionable, specific plan that gives you autonomy and power over your body and health. This plan is designed to be practical and useful by not only mitigating (or even eliminating) your symptoms but also avoiding the side effects of unnecessary medication – that attractive, shiny red pill. Your plan of action, which can include a set of habits to enable behavior change, can allow your entire body a chance to heal, grow and thrive with energy, resilience, and balance.
Client-Centered Care As a Key Principle of Functional Medicine
At the core of this field, the client (patient) is treated as an entire person; not the problem, disease, or set of symptoms. Conventional medicine tends to be a more disease-centered focus, which encourages practitioners to orient themselves towards acute care – they see the problem/disease/symptoms and solve for those. The difference here is that functional medicine believes health goes beyond the absence of a disease or symptom. Being client-centered means that by identifying the origins of your symptoms, which are unique to you, a practitioner can create a specific, highly-relevant plan that enables you to prevent and treat the main reasons you came to seek help, but also improve other areas of your life – like your physical, mental, and emotional health.
You, as the client, deserve to be understood and heard – and this takes time. You deserve the chance to not only explain your set of symptoms, but share how these symptoms have impacted your quality of life if they’ve evolved over your lifetime, what other physical, mental, or emotional changes you have noticed, and much more. Oftentimes, as you share your story, you begin to recall events or moments in your life that you may have forgotten but could be related to what you are experiencing today. The process of self-expression and storytelling allows for the dots to become connected.
What does Client-Centered Care look like in action with a Health Coach?
When a client first sits down with me, it’s usually driven by one of two catalysts:
The client was referred to me by a Doctor with a prescribed protocol and is seeking support in the implementation of this protocol.
The client does not have a Doctor but has a health challenge they need help solving and are seeking support to address it.
In the first case, a doctor may have prescribed a protocol like “complete the Elimination Diet,” “reduce your stress by regulating your cortisol” or “use movement & increased vegetable consumption to lower your blood pressure.” In the second case, you may be experiencing work burnout, uncontrolled stress, chronic fatigue, or an imbalance in one or more areas of your life and aren’t entirely sure where to begin.
As a health coach, my role is to provide you with an engaging environment where you can leverage a multitude of tools, access an abundance of science-backed knowledge, and safely explore a path to clarify your priorities. My intention is to be present, actively listen and provide the space for you to navigate
A health coach that works with a doctor would have access to the client’s functional medicine matrix, timeline, and medical symptom questionnaire. These documents provide important insight into the client's history and context as to why this protocol was prescribed. Depending on the stage of the client’s journey, these protocols may have specific objectives or maybe more amorphous and undefined.
Regardless of the focus area, a health coach is able to work with a client to translate these protocols into SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timely) and to link them to a client’s personal vision of health and wellness. For example, with reducing stress, we would always discuss any questions you have about the doctor's protocol (e.g. How is cortisol related to stress?). We would complete a few questionnaires that help you measurably understand your stress. We take the time to understand what your current habits are – and how you might categorize them as more stressful or more relaxing. We discuss your history of and relationship to stress over the course of your life. We identify how it manifests in your body – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – and what challenges you have faced in attempts to reduce stress. We begin to carve a reasonable path for you to stay motivated, make progress and eventually succeed. My role, as a health coach, is to provide the time and safe space for you to feel supported by a trustworthy, non-judgemental accountability partner.
In the second case, you may be experiencing work burnout, uncontrolled stress, chronic fatigue, or a lack of balance in one or more areas of your life. As a health coach, I would first understand your personal vision of what you hope to achieve in working together. We would talk about your personal values and character strengths to begin to build the foundation of a healthy, positive mindset for behavior change. We would navigate your Wheel of Life to see how this health challenge is affecting one or more areas of your life to better identify ways to measure your progress. All this work would serve you in clarifying your vision of a healthy life and allow you to form more concrete goals that move you toward this self-defined vision. Once your vision has become more clear, the same access to information, inspiration, and activation become available for you to feel empowered with the right tools and knowledge to make progress that’s important on your terms.
Discover The Value of Client-Centered Care
Do you feel that your attempts to share your story have fallen on deaf ears?
Have you tried to find solutions to your health problems without much success?
Are you tired of the conventional medicine model that treats you as a set of problems instead of a person with unmet needs?
If you feel like you’ve tried to share your story with others, but the solutions or approach did not serve you well, consider a functional medicine health coach as a safe, accountable partner. I am trained to actively listen, create a safe space, empower you to ask questions, and ultimately address your greatest health needs. Let’s talk about your needs – set up a free consultation here.
Tai-Seale M, McGuire TG, Zhang W. Time allocation in primary care office visits. Health Serv Res. 2007 Oct;42(5):1871-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6773.2006.00689.x. PMID: 17850524; PMCID: PMC2254573.
“Functional.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/functional. Accessed 15 Feb. 2023.