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Integrative health: A whole-person approach

This piece first appeared on the Good Notes blog.

Lola is healthier and happier now that she has the tools to prevent diabetes and access whole-person health.

Lola works long hours in the fast food industry to support herself and her son. Though only 36 years old, she always feels tired. She was diagnosed with prediabetes five years ago. But it’s been two years since she last saw a doctor.

Lola was finally connected with University of Utah Health’s Wellness Bus. This mobile prevention program is part of the Driving Out Diabetes initiative funded by the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation.

The Wellness Bus seeks to reduce chronic disease by providing health services and screenings for community members at no cost. On her first visit, Lola met with clinical dietician Alex Hernandez. Lola’s fatigue was so severe, that she had trouble staying awake during the appointment.

This is where Lola’s wellness journey began with the Osher Center for Integrative Health. A newly designated “center” at the University of Utah, we are part of the Osher Collaborative, a network of 11 centers worldwide funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation. The Wellness Bus is one of many programs and services offered through the Osher Center.

Rethinking how we approach health care

Lola’s story echoes the experience of many Americans. The health care system in the United States has long been a topic of debate and concern. According to the National Institutes of Health, the United States has the lowest life expectancy and the highest prevalence and death rates among avoidable or treatable conditions like diabetes.

The alarming decline in our health as a nation directly impacts our quality of life.

This is a grave concern, but it also presents an opportunity to rethink how we approach health care. Traditionally, health care resources are most commonly allocated to high-risk, high-cost interventions, with only a small portion dedicated to low-risk treatments, stress management and environmental and behavioral factors.

Flipping this perspective to prioritize the foundations of health—healthy behaviors, stress management, early or low-risk treatments, evaluating environment and workplace—will result in better health outcomes. This approach enables us to reduce the burden on the health care system and improve overall health of the population.

Foundations of health

Whether we want to avoid diabetes, heart disease, cancer or mental health disorders, the foundations of prevention are the same. These include what we eat, how we move, how we sleep and how we connect with the world around us.

This connection is not just about self-awareness but also about being connected to the community and having a sense of meaning and purpose. These factors are heavily influenced by the environment we live and work in and the community we are part of. They also impact our ability to manage stress.

When we identify someone’s personal health goals, we use these foundations to help them achieve optimal health, improve overall quality of life and ultimately prevent or treat disease.

Understanding the root cause of health issues 

To enhance the health of our patients, employees and community, the Osher Center for Integrative Health embeds personal and professional well-being throughout our health system. Our goal is to help people develop positive lifestyle behaviors that strengthen their foundations of health to reduce the risk of disease and chronic illness.

We do this by taking an “integrative” health approach. As defined by the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health, integrative medicine and health reaffirms the importance of:

  • Relationship between practitioner and patient
  • Focusing on the whole person
  • Being informed by evidence
  • Making use of all appropriate therapeutic and lifestyle approaches, health care professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing

An integrative approach to health can include better nutrition or other healthy behaviors, health coaching, mental health counseling, fitness classes, stress management or massage or osteopathic manipulation and mindfulness.

For employees, it includes things like brief counseling through the Resiliency Center. This is a resource U of U Health providers can use when struggling with on-the-job stress and exploring skills for recovery after a trauma in the workplace.

Whole-person care also includes connections to resources that address social determinants, such as access to healthy food and safe housing.

A whole-person approach helps health care providers understand the root cause of a patient’s health issues. Then they can develop a personalized care plan to improve their foundations of health and connect to programs or strategies that address all the underlying problems. This leads to better long-term patient health outcomes and reduced health care costs.

Most importantly, it puts the patient in the driver’s seat of their health.

Success for Lola

At her first visit with the Wellness Bus, Lola received screenings that confirmed her blood glucose levels were still in the prediabetes range and her cholesterol was high. Since then, Lola has received regular one-on-one health coaching to keep her informed and motivated to make positive changes in nutrition, exercise and goal setting.

She was also referred to low-cost clinics that accept patients without insurance and programs aiding individuals with food insecurity. She enrolled in the National Diabetes Prevention Program and participated in a Spanish-speaking cohort organized and led by the Osher Center for Integrative Health.

Today, Lola is feeling energized, lighter and better overall. She has established primary care with a Spanish-speaking provider. She has experienced weight loss, lowered her cholesterol and gone from prediabetes to blood glucose levels in the healthy, normal range.

Her success has had a ripple effect across her family. Having witnessed her transformation, her son is motivated to adopt healthier habits for himself.

The future of integrative health

Lola’s journey is a testament to the effectiveness of integrative health care. Her success is a source of inspiration for all those connected to the Osher Center for Integrative Health.

The president and founder of the Bernard Osher Foundation recently visited our campus. He commended our approach to whole-patient care, citing our outstanding track record in transforming lives through better health outcomes. We are proud to work alongside the foundation and other members of the Osher Collaborative to develop a model for integrative care that can be replicated across the country.

Our goal is to reverse chronic illness statistics in the U.S. and equip people with the tools to prevent these conditions from taking root. We are excited about what the future holds for the practice and expansion of integrative health across our campus, state and the nation.

We will continue working to reduce the burden of chronic disease with:

  • Prevention programs and outreach
  • Creating a culture of wellness across the university
  • Training the next generation of health care providers in whole-person care
  • Supporting research that improves well-being and contributes to a deeper understanding of integrative practices

Our next step is to bring our teams together in a new space in Research Park that promises endless possibilities for the future.

On a recent tour of the new facility, expected to open in 2025, we were struck by the stunning views of the western landscape from the top floor. And we felt the promise of better health and well-being for thousands of people just like Lola who have been and will continue to be impacted by our work.