By Susie Ellis, Chair & CEO, the Global Wellness Summit
Most of us have heard the term “functional medicine” but what exactly does it mean? And what is the future for this growing but often misunderstood approach to health and wellbeing?
Recently, the Miskawaan Health Group, in partnership with the Global Wellness Summit (GWS), presented The Future of Functional Medicine, a first-of-its-kind symposium in Asia, bringing together leading global medical experts and scientists to share the latest insights, research and trends in the field of functional medicine. I was honored to participate in the illuminating discussions around this preventative, healthcare-meets-wellness approach.
What Is Functional Medicine?
The definition I heard used most often at the symposium was the one provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine: “Functional medicine determines how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the root causes of disease for each individual.” It goes on to talk about “the individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness.”
I am a fan of creating short, easier-to-remember definitions and here is my take: functional medicine focuses on root cause of disease, extensive one-on-one time with patients, and lifestyle changes.
Functional medicine is in many ways an ideal bridge between medicine and wellness. Furthermore, thinking of functional medicine as an approach to health and wellbeing might allow it to be used in more settings and negate some of the challenging issues that have attracted detractors.
It appears that the state of functional medicine in Asia is similar to the US and Europe – although with less visibility and none of the outspoken champions we have in the US, like Dr. Mark Hyman. What I didn’t see is the somewhat hostile efforts to suppress functional medicine that I have witnessed in the US, as evidenced by the Wikipedia slant and some of the vocal critics.
Instead, I find there is a lot of enthusiasm, interest and momentum for functional medicine among health providers I met in Bangkok – but not as yet a wholehearted effort to educate others and the public about what functional medicine means. Nor has there been any effort to collaborate which is something that might now change. As health and wellness evolve around the world – especially as a result of COVID – and because Thailand wants to attract international tourism, more use of the term functional medicine might be something to consider.
My Top 10 Take-Aways
1. Functional Medicine Fits Between Medicine and Wellness
The Global Wellness Institute and the GWS have been clear about the distinction between medicine and wellness over the past decade. This has allowed each of the wellness sectors to flourish, including the development of wellness tourism. Thailand recognizes its unique position as a country to trumpet an integrated approach to these disciplines because they have already established expertise in medicine and spa therapies (think Thai massage). Moreover, traditional Thai medicine (TTM) medicine has historically incorporated functional medicine quite naturally.
2. Focus on a Functional Medicine Approach
Because there isn’t an agreed-upon functional medicine certification and/or license globally, a functional medicine approach could be successful. The unique aspects of functional medicine — like getting to the root cause of a disease, spending more time with patients one on one, and emphasizing lifestyle rather than medications and surgery — can find a ready and willing audience.
New areas of cooperation around functional medicine that are springing up could also be encouraged. These include coaching, some diagnostics and use of certain medical technology that help people make lifestyle changes. The difference between this conversation and the previous attempts (most often failures) of bringing together medicine and wellness is that this approach comes from the medical side, where doctors of functional medicine have a profound respect for what wellness brings to the table.
3. A Wide Variety of Topics
The historic symposium, which was a partnership between GWS and Miskawaan Health Group, explored a range of topics: preventative cardiology, health span, biohacking, gut health, immunity, cancer, precision medicine, hormones, longevity, herbal components, contrast therapy (heat/ice), personalized medicine, cannabis, immunotherapy, and more. Most of the presenters were MDs. I would have liked to have seen more from the wellness side, such as music or sound therapy, or more information about TTM, Thai massage and Thai herbs in poultices, as well as healthy Thai cuisine, etc.
4. New Opportunities for Wellness Tourism
Thailand is already known for medical expertise as well as excellence in spa and wellness offerings. A term I heard used often was medical wellness. Thailand is ripe for attracting more wellness tourism. Interestingly, the Thai elite go elsewhere for their medical care. When I asked where they go, the answer was often Germany. Perhaps some internal PR and education would be of value, so that the domestic market could be motivated to participate in various health care and self-care options inside the country. With stellar facilities such as Bumrungrad, rated as one of the top hospitals in the world, and Chiva Som and Kamalaya rated at the top of many spa resort lists, there is much for Thailand to be proud of and champion.
5. Functional Medicine Is Driving Change in Cancer Care
While functional medicine can be an approach that touches on many areas, it seems that Thailand is finding some expertise and passion for functional medicine and cancer care. This is fascinating and would of course be of interest around the world. People are looking for evidence-based methods, so this might be a space to watch that could provide hope.
6. LGBTQ+ Health/Sexual Medicine Is Alive and Well
While there was only one item on the symposium agenda that addressed this topic, the issue of LGBTQ+ health permeated loudly. Moreover, many on stage and among the attendees identified as LGBTQ+. After some additional research, I learned that there aren’t more transgender people in Thailand than any other country. They are simply more open about it. However, I also learned that the government doesn’t seem to want to emphasize this historically popular tourism category. I was told that the same could also be said about the beauty arena, which has some negative connotations concerning plastic surgery. Thailand has expertise in this field.
7. Valuable and Effective Collaboration for Functional Medicine
Meeting many of the delegates who attended the one-day symposium, I was pleasantly surprised to see people from so many different arenas: hospitality, government, the National Charter of Health, hospitals, clinics, wellness tourism, energy medicine, spas, as well as technology start-ups, etc. I did, however, notice that few of them knew each other or the establishments the others worked for. Perhaps this is cultural or simply historical in this evolving arena – however therein lies a superb opportunity to build a collaboration in Thailand and Asia.
The situation reminded me of past Global Wellness Summits, when we introduced like-minded individuals from various countries and sectors, which in the beginning felt uncomfortable. Some delegates were competitors. For example, when our Summit took place in Switzerland, we brought together all the attending hydrothermal companies into one conference room and facilitated a discussion to answer the question, “What can we accomplish together that we can’t do on our own?” What began as a frosty conversation with most attendees sitting with their arms crossed, about an hour later became a lively discussion in which all participants were engaged. The result? The brilliant idea of collaborating to produce the Guide to Hydrothermal Spa & Wellness Development Standards Manual, which is now in its fourth printing! Collaboration helps with momentum and can grow the pie for all.
8. Increased Use of the Term Medical Wellness
I had a tour of the spacious Siam Kempinski the Spa and the new BDMS Wellness Clinic which occupies all nine floors in its own building. I also visited RAKxa Wellness and Medical Retreat in Bangkok’s Green Lung area, and the Miskawaan Health Clinic in Bangkok. In addition, I spent time in Koh Samui and had a chance to stay at the beautiful Miskawaan Health Rehabilitation and Immune Center, as well as visit Kamalaya Koh Samui, the wellness sanctuary and holistic spa retreat. It was also heartening to catch up with proprietors of Chiva Som Hua Hin whose destination wellness resort in Thailand is well-known internationally.
Here is a variety of terms used either from the stage or in conversations: health, wellness clinic, retreat, sanctuary, spa, spa resort, medical wellness, functional medicine, lifestyle medicine, conventional medicine, concierge medicine, prevention, resort, holistic center, integrative, traditional Thai medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, energy medicine, holistic, immunotherapy, beauty, cosmetic – and there are more. Sometimes people are surprised that I am fond of each of the terms in the right setting, as I believe the consumer can differentiate as they experience the offering. It also allows for distinction in marketing.
Topics that seem to be trending include burn-out, mental wellness, fitness and sports for females, wellness sabbaticals or working vacations, IV therapy, and a term I hadn’t heard before… Real Size Beauty. This was used by one of the more memorable speakers at the Symposium, Dr. Patana Teng.
9. It’s a Mistake to Think Thai Massage is Passé
It was a surprise to hear several people attempt to minimize the country’s famous Thai massage in effort to highlight other Thai assets. I had to laugh because it reminded me of many years ago, when India was dismissing Ayurveda. Ayurveda has an extremely long history in India but the people in India had set it aside for a modern medicine approach that seemed more promising to them. Ayurvedic medicine was considered old-school and dated and “why would tourists be interested?” And then, when the rest of the world discovered Ayurveda and made it comfortable, interesting, and effective in their luxury spas, India once again embraced it and proudly began marketing it. It has become a huge tourism draw for India and source of employment, in addition to providing a much-appreciated reason for national pride.
I think that Thai massage provides a similar opportunity for Thailand. It is already branded! There are Thai massages on menus all over the world and the term conjures up an exotic island experience, with a unique, fun story to tell afterward. And the Thai therapists are known as some of the best in the world. Instead of searching for something else, my suggestion would be to showcase the Thai massage more and give it a bit more depth. Explore the history, emphasize the practice of poultices, expand the knowledge of accessories that can accompany the experience, add pre- and post-flair. Invest in fragrance, textures and most importantly research, that can help trumpet the evidence-based value to a person’s health and wellness provided by this unique massage that includes stretching and different equipment and techniques. And invest in some great new photography!
10. My Crystal Ball—the Future of Functional Medicine Is Positive
I listened to 33 speakers during the symposium in Bangkok, visited numerous facilities in Thailand, and spoke with countless delegates. In the US, my experience included connecting with Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Frank Lipman, scouring online resources and digging into the information provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine. I even took part in the recent virtual conference that was offered by the Institute for Functional Medicine. (Interestingly, not as many speakers were MDs compared to what I experienced in Bangkok.) I also connected with several people in Europe. I have concluded that the term functional medicine is showing up more and more, and that this is likely to continue because it is something that consumers like and want. Its growth could be helped by an organized effort in global collaboration.
Things to Watch
- Functional medicine will be on the agenda of the 2022 Global Wellness Summit taking place in Tel Aviv, October 31- Nov 2.
- The Global Wellness Institute is open to someone stepping up to lead a Functional Medicine Approach Initiative.
- There was interest from those I spoke with in the US (Dr. Lipman, Dr. Hyman, others) to collaborate globally.
- There is a Medical Wellness Congress taking place in Vienna, June 27-28 that I will be attending…another chance for the medical and wellness worlds to explore opportunities.
About the Author
Susie Ellis is the co-founder, chair and CEO of the Global Wellness Summit and chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Institute, the non-profit research and educational resource for the global wellness industry. Recognized as an authority on wellness trends, Susie is frequently quoted in major news outlets around the world. She holds an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a popular speaker at industry events.