In late February, I had the privilege to attend the Integrative Healthcare  Symposium in New York city.  This opportunity was made possible with generous funding from KILN.  The Integrative Healthcare Symposium brings together leaders in the fields of integrative healthcare, grabbing from the fields of nursing, medicine, nutrition, and naturopathy, and more.  The topics of focus in this year’s conference were cardiovascular health, nutrition, musculoskeletal medicine, integrative approaches to disease management, integrative nursing, and mind-body-spirit medicine.

There were several seminars and workshops in each area that gave a combination of evidenced based research grounding to integrative techniques as well as offered concrete approaches to using these techniques to improve the health of individuals in our care.  As a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) student, I especially enjoyed attending several seminars on mental health.  These seminars addressed topics such as: the best foods to improve mood and protect the brain from diseases like dementia and the role of chronic stress in perpetuating psychiatric disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder.  I was left with a new perspective on prevention and treatment of disorders I commonly see as an NP student in my clinical setting.

Frequently, I have patients who want alternative approaches to improving their mental health than the traditional medications offered.  After attending this conference I feel more confident in counseling them on how they can use food, exercise, stress reduction, and alternative therapies to improve their well-being.  I learned that alternative approaches such as acupuncture, nutritional counseling, and chiropractic care have proven benefits in treating diseases like depression.  I also found out the physiological effects of meditation practices and yoga, including how these alter gene expression and the cellular functioning of our mitochondria and telomeres, as well as how they interact with our stress system to reduce feelings of chronic anxiety and fatigue.  Along with the research background that can be used for patient education, I took away new and concrete techniques that I can use in my appointments with patients, including mindfulness and relaxation exercises.

You may still be wondering what integrative healthcare is.  Integrative healthcare can be broadly defined as an approach using both conventional medicine and alternative approaches to provide care that addresses the whole person – mind, body, and spirit.  An integrative approach, for example, would look at the interplay of several body systems in diseases like depression and diabetes, and would also examine how an individual’s social and environmental surroundings play into their health.  Integrative healthcare focuses on prevention and promoting well-being, not merely disease management.  If you are a nurse, this likely sounds very familiar – it is essentially the nursing model.  At the conference, I realized how congruent integrative healthcare is with nursing and wondered why nursing was not a better represented and leading field within this model.  I was able to meet many leaders in the field of nursing at the conference, such as Nurse Theorists Barbara Dossey and Mary Jo Kreizer, who also spoke to the fact that nurses are natural leaders in this growing field.  In this I see a unique opportunity to blend two important areas – integrative healthcare and nursing practice – which will ultimately advance both fields, with the ultimate goal of creating healthier and happier lifestyles for individuals and communities.

The conference ended with a keynote address from James Gordon, MD, an integrative psychiatrist and founder of one of my favorite organizations, the Center for Mind Body Medicine.  The focus of his address was “the healer’s journey,” during which he recounted his career trajectory and offered words of wisdom for the many students, practitioners, and researchers in attendance.  He reflected on the current state of health in our country, and the vast amount of work that needs to be done to reverse trends like the obesity and depression epidemics.  He highlighted ways in which the integrative healthcare approach – with its focus on prevention and health promotion – can reverse these trends, and urged the attendees to continue doing the work to make this a reality.  Whether this work is labeled integrative healthcare or nursing, I believe it is what we want and need to live healthier lives.  I am very appreciative of KILN for allowing me the opportunity to attend this conference and connect with others in a field that I am passionate about, and I look forward to using the perspectives and tools I learned at this conference as I begin my journey as an NP.