ABPS Diplomate Ann Safo, DO, on What It’s Like to Specialize in Integrative Medicine as a Family Medicine Physician
I first learned of integrative medicine five years ago while switching jobs due to a move. Sanford Health in Fargo, ND, was looking for physicians who practice integrative medicine, and although it was the first time I had heard of the specialty, I realized I had been practicing it throughout my career. As an osteopathic physician, the core values of integrative medicine resonated with me and reinforced the idea that integrative medicine is “just good medicine!” I eagerly sat for the board exam with the American Board of Integrative Medicine® (ABOIM) and felt blessed to find a place among like-minded physicians.
Integrative medicine affords me a practice that is perfectly in line with my lifestyle and philosophy of health and medicine. I have the opportunity to discuss with patients the importance of a healthy diet, stress management, spirituality, and proper sleep, which emphasizes the specialty’s core values and educates patients on the holistic aspects of health. Practicing integrative medicine is truly my dream job. I enjoy coming to work and living out my calling each day. As an avid gardener, I see medicine as planting seeds of well-being, such as when I’m working with infants and children, cultivating and nurturing health among adults, and harvesting the fruits of a well-lived life in patients’ senior years.
The rewards of practicing integrative medicine come to me in the small moments, like the moment patients realize that they already know what’s their healthiest course of action, and they are motivated to pursue it. I am just the facilitator for their journey to health and wellness.
Practicing integrative medicine certainly comes with challenges, and for me, the biggest one is trying to accommodate the number of patients who want to see an integrative medicine specialist. The waiting list at our clinic in Fargo is long. When we opened in summer 2019, the community celebrated with us and patients were excited to have access to integrative medicine. Today, I struggle with balancing my family medicine practice with integrative medicine consults.
Another challenge is advocating for our patients with their insurance company. For instance, even though Sanford Health is a large enterprise that gives Medicare and Medicaid patients access to integrative medicine, these programs do not cover acupuncture, vitamins, and supplements, so we have to be creative to overcome these obstacles.
As family physicians we were taught to think of the patient first. This is exactly what integrative medicine is, looking at the patient as a whole person. Integrating complementary and alternative modalities into my practice comes very naturally as I try to reduce the overall burden to the patient, whether that be financial, reducing side effects, or preventing illness.
Every physician in training for integrative medicine should practice compassion. Serving others takes great strength, but physicians must balance this with a healthy dose of self-care. My strength comes from my relationship with God, from practicing yoga and meditation, and taking lots of Vitamin D in the winter. Fargo is cold!