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Is it Functional Medicine or Functional Marketing?

Over the last 20 years, I have practiced and studied alongside a brilliant, caring, and visionary group of clinicians and scientists assembled at the Institute for Functional Medicine. This organization birthed the term “Functional Medicine” over 30 years ago to describe a heuristic of applied systems-biology medicine and root-cause-analysis in clinical care. It is a beautiful way to practice. 

I am proud to be one of the early physician IFM members, to have been certified with the first cohort of IFM-Certified Practitioners, to serve as a member of their core teaching faculty both domestically and in the international education arena, and to be the external Faculty Lead for the Energy Advanced Practice Module of their certification program.

I think the Institute for Functional Medicine sets a high standard for professionalism. They have created a great certification course to teach the foundations of systems-based thinking in healthcare. I highly recommend this certification to medical professionals looking to grow personally and professionally. 

In the early years, each Functional Medicine practitioner came to this field with different histories, practice experiences, licensure, interests, opinions, and styles. There are vast differences in training, approach, practice experience, and credentials within the concept of Functional Wellness and Functional Medicine. 

Unfortunately, IFM did not choose to trademark or defend the trademark of the term “Functional Medicine” which they germinated. This did not matter for my first 12 years with them because there were few practitioners and little public awareness. Then, with increased awareness of the unique effectiveness of this approach in clinical medicine, there arose copycat organizations and teaching programs all selling “Functional Medicine” – often with materials directly plagiarized from IFM. If these programs produced accurate, high quality control content, or if they were judicious about who was allowed to use the term Functional Medicine, then there would not be a problem today confusing practitioners and patients alike.

However, at present there has been an unfortunate dilution in the meaning of the term Functional Medicine. The IFM approach to Functional Medicine is a specific approach taken to patient care and applied through medical education. Some individuals want to catch the wave of opportunity, sometimes for product marketing purposes over medical excellence. Others feel that Functional Medicine simply means recommending supplements instead of drugs or doing nutrition testing. That is so very far from the truth of true Functional Medicine.

Some “programs” that are labeled as Functional Medicine or marketed by people claiming to be practicing Functional Medicine are little more than product promotion opportunities, designed to garner a social media following or drive a sale. 

Why am I spending time discussing this? Because we often see patients in our practice that have spent a lot of money, time, and effort, without getting impactful results, following generic directions and taking advice from non-medically-licensed “experts” before they make their way to our clinic door. All too often, these individuals feel jilted and angry about their experience now that they know better. They don’t understand why some individuals call themselves Functional Medicine practitioners/providers, when they are not medically trained, or are not staying within the scope of their licensure.

What makes me even more sad and concerned is imagining all those individuals that have been down that path of holistic, functional, integrative healthcare, and had a bad enough experience to never re-engage their health in that way again.

Let me be clear, I have no worries about these non-licensed or questionably trained individuals being “competition,” as there are more than enough people struggling with their health in the world. We are facing a pandemic of chronic disease stemming from poor lifestyle and environmental concerns. Vast numbers of health advocates can all stay busy for lifetimes educating and managing patients, the real question is how do we handle this responsibly as a healthcare community putting the patient’s best interests in the center.  

I have coined this click-bait friendly, hyper-promotional, opportunistic, reductionistic bastardization of Functional Medicine as “Functional Marketing.” It makes me sad to witness any mailman, cyber-marketer or unlicensed course graduate of a dubious program claim to “practice Functional Medicine.”  This dilutes to absurdity a noble movement. 

Medicine is a term that in most states is legislated to be limited to the engagement of a professional with a license to practice medicine. I think the state licensure boards should take seriously the misuse of the term “Medicine” for marketing purposes by non-licensed individuals. I see no reason for restriction for terms like “Functional Wellness” or “Functional Health,” but to use the term “Medicine” if one is not licensed to practice medicine is deceptive and out of one’s scope.

True Functional Medicine does not sell a pill for an ill, or manipulatively promote that “everything starts in the ______” or “your ______ is making you fat and tired” or “your genes make you ______” or “the secret is to only eat ______ and don’t eat ______  and your ______ will be cured” or “the fix for your low/high ______(insert gland here) ______ problem is ______.”

Unfortunately, marketing is best when it is reductionist and boiled down to a sound bite. Rarely can a sound bite accurately describe the complexity of a wholesome approach to healing the human system. If it sounds too good and simple to be true, it might be “Functional Marketing” and not truly Functional Medicine.

What is Functional Medicine as defined by the organization that coined the term and developed the original concept over 30 years ago?  

The Functional Medicine model is an 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. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.

By addressing the root cause, rather than symptoms, practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of disease. They may find one condition has many different causes and, likewise, one cause may result in many different conditions. As a result, Functional Medicine treatment targets the specific manifestations of disease in each individual.

When I am asked where one can go to find a doctor that practices with a similar philosophy as me, I will encourage a visit to the website for the Institute for Functional Medicine,, and search in your area. Examine all the licensure, credentials and experience of the individuals to make an informed choice that suits your needs and view of the world. If possible, choose a practitioner that is an IFM-Certified Practitioner (IFMCP) as it shows a level of dedication and depth that simple membership in the IFM does not.

Are you local to the greater Nashville area? If so, and you need a Functional Medicine practitioner, I encourage you to come to MaxWell Clinic. As the founder and Medical Director of MaxWell Clinic, I can tell you firsthand that we work relentlessly to help our patients uncover the root cause of their illness and achieve better health. MaxWell Clinic is a center for excellence in Personalized Systems Medicine and provides services and capabilities not available under one roof anywhere else in the world. But what really sets our clinic apart is our team of dedicated clinicians and staff. Highly trained in Functional Medicine and grounded in personalized, compassionate care, they are eager to help you identify the root cause of your illness and improve every aspect of your health.

Thanks for letting me vent a bit. I desperately want the whole of medical practice to shift to a more wholesome, systems-based approach, and posers create harmful distractions that thwart the progress that could be made. 


David Haase, MD

Founder and CEO of MaxWell Clinic

Dr. David Haase

Dr. Haase is the Founder and CEO of MaxWell Clinic- a Collaborative-Care, Functional Medicine Clinic. He is committed to finding and addressing the underlying causes of illness in his patients.