When some people hear the term “functional medicine,” they are often not sure exactly what it means — and many people assume that it’s something entirely different and apart from Western medicine.
In fact, functional medicine is based on the belief that each person is biochemically and genetically unique, and that what we need to heal is not the same for everybody. Functional Medicine is also based on the idea that almost all of our health issues are caused by a problem in either our immune system, gastrointestinal system or endocrine system, and when one of those symptoms is out of balance, it can affect all of the others.
Dr. Frances Baxley, MD, a Harvard University-trained physician who recently became certified as a functional medicine practitioner, says functional medicine is actually a discipline that fills in many of the gaps of that traditional medicine misses.
“I really like the way functional medicine marries together integrative medicine’s emphasis on lifestyle and alternative healing modalities with what science is teaching us about how treatments can be customized to address each person’s unique array of physiological imbalances,” Baxley explains.
For example, in traditional clinical settings, a doctor may ask about your symptoms and may prescribe a certain medication to help you, but he or she may not have them time to explore other things in your life that could be affecting your overall health, such as how much sleep you’re getting, what foods you’re eating and whether or not you’re under a lot of stress. Functional medicine practitioners explore how these lifestyle factors interact with a person’s unique biochemistry and then develop treatment plans in partnership with patients to address root causes of symptoms.
And it was this holistic, science-based and human-centered approach to care that really appealed to Baxley.
Baxley says that she first had the idea to become a doctor when she was in middle school in Pensacola, FL. “I’ve always found people very interesting and I liked science. So I thought, hmm, what about being a doctor?” Baxley says. “It was a fairly uninformed decision at the age of 12, but it turns out I love being a physician.”
However, when she began studying at Harvard Medical School in 2001, she quickly realized that people become doctors for all kinds of different motivations – love of research, epidemiology, procedural expertise, for instance– not all of which are centered around long-term relationships with patients and families. “In my graduating class, I think there were only five of us who wanted to go into family medicine,” Baxley remembers.
After graduation from Harvard Medical School, she completed her residency in family and community medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, where she worked with underserved, low-income populations. From there, she spent three years in rural New Mexico, where she provided full-spectrum care at a small Indian Health Service hospital on the Navajo Reservation.
And it was there that a colleague at Indian Health Service introduced her to the concept of functional medicine. “When she left the IHS, she started her own functional medicine practice and I found her descriptions of how she worked with patients to get to the root cause of their problems very interesting. So I attended an Institute for Functional Medicine conference and liked the approach,” Baxley says.
When Baxley became pregnant with her second son in 2012, she and her husband decided to move to the Chicago suburbs to be closer to her husband’s family, and since then she has been working exclusively as a primary care physician, first through NorthShore University HealthSystem and later as the Site Medical Director at Erie HealthReach Waukegan Health Center, where she also teaches family medicine residents from Northwestern’s McGaw Family Medicine Residency at Lake Forest.
Over the last few years, Baxley completed her coursework in functional medicine through the Institute for Functional Medicine, and now, Baxley is excited to join the staff at the Center of Holistic Medicine, where she will be able to treat patients of all ages with both traditional medicine and a functional medicine approach. She will also continue seeing patients in Waukegan with Erie Family Health Centers and teaching with the Northwestern residency.
“I thought functional medicine really brought me full circle to what I wanted to do when I started out in medicine,” Baxley says.
As both a traditional doctor and a functional medicine practitioner, Baxley says it’s important to her to spend a lot of quality time with each of her patients and to give her patients an opportunity to give her feedback to see if her assessment of their issues resonates with them. “It redefines the patient/provider relationship,” Baxley says.
As a physician, Baxley says we can’t underestimate how much our diet, lifestyle and environmental factors, such as pollution, contribute to our overall health, and she says stress is one of the biggest things that cause people’s health to become out of balance.
As a traditional doctor, Baxley is not someone who avoids prescribing drugs for people when needed, but she says changing your lifestyle can also make a big impact. “Drugs are incredibly important and definitely save and prolong lives,” she says. “But when you’ve lived for decades on drugs, but it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes that allow people to need fewer medications or lower doses.”