How To Become A Functional Medicine Practitioner

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

Functional medicine is a term you have likely seen or talked about within the past twenty years. If you work in the healthcare field, the odds are good that you know someone who works for a physician or practice that utilizes functional medicine. What exactly is functional medicine though? Let’s discuss how to become a functional medicine practitioner and more.

What Is Functional Medicine?

At its simplest, most basic level, Functional Medicine (FM) is a philosophy or system of medical practice based upon the premise that the human body is an intricate system influenced by a vast array of factors both internal and external.

The goal is to examine these factors to get to the root cause of a given health problem and find the most naturally efficient way to correct it. It expands beyond the traditional, if somewhat cliche medical notion of, “You have high blood pressure. Here’s some medication to lower it. You might try to eat better and get some exercise.”

Functional Medicine takes a patient’s history, their genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment, and lab work, and works with the patient around these elements to figure out what is causing that high blood pressure (or any other health issue), and how to best address fixing it. This doesn’t preclude medication, but instead places it on a prioritized list of possible options.

It comes out of a history of osteopathic medicine, which began 150 years ago, and attempted to take a whole-body approach to medicine and the body’s natural ability to heal itself. You will find many Doctors of Osteopathy who now practice FM. This dove-tailed nicely with the growth of naturopathic medicine in the 60’s and 70’s and became a term on its own in the 90’s.

Functional Medicine has suffered similar credibility issues over the years, but increasing amounts of research and affiliation with a credible medical institution (The Cleveland Clinic) have helped to solidify its future going forward. This isn’t to say there still isn’t a healthy debate between the differing medical philosophies.

Functional medicine is grounded in the 6 following processes:

  • Gene-Environment Interaction: using epigenetics to develop targeted interventions
  • Upstream Signal Modulation: intervening in dysregulated body processes
  • Systems Biology–Based Approach: understanding that health issues involve an interconnected matrix of processes, and aren’t usually organ specific
  • Multimodal Treatment Plans: a broad range of interventions including diet, nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep, and targeted nutra/pharmaceutical therapies
  • Understanding the Patient in Context: discovering the individual’s story within the context of the antecedents, triggers, and mediators that have informed their health over time
  • Patient-Centered and Directed: patients are encouraged to engage in the diagnostic process, set achievable health goals, and design an appropriate therapeutic approach

One of the main differences between the others and Traditional Medicine is the fact that they aren’t quick fixes. However, it should also be stated that some medical issues require direct, quick fixes. Non-traditional practices do not focus on these issues, but more on chronic health issues. These are more complex, systematic health issues that require broader approaches to heal from. It wants to alleviate symptoms, but understands fundamentally that some causes create multiple symptoms and some symptoms have multiple causes.

Part of the allure of functional medicine, and why academic hospital-based centers like Cleveland Clinic are embracing it, is motivated in part by a shift from insurance companies to be more interested in outcomes instead of volume. A report on outcomes of more than 4,200 patients treated at Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine found that CCCFM patients had greater clinical improvements and lower health care costs than patients receiving conventional care at Cleveland Clinic.

Like any practice of medicine though, how well it works for a patient is as much dependent on the abilities and knowledge of the practitioner as much as what is actually done for the patient.

What Is A Functional Medicine Practitioner And What Do They Do?

Before discussing how to become a functional medicine practitioner, let’s dive into what they do. When someone walks through the door of a functional medicine practitioner, what can they expect to find? There’s a reason the FMP is a ‘practitioner’ and not a ‘doctor’. They could certainly have that moniker, but having that label is not required to be considered an FMP.

Recall from above that FM is not a specialty within the medical field like cardiologist or ophthalmologist (we will explain further down how to become a functional medicine practitioner). It is more a philosophy of practice, a way of viewing medicine, than a special category of training. That said, any medical specialty could also practice FM. So, who can actually become a functional medicine practitioner?

An FMP can come from a wide variety of other healthcare disciplines. For the one currently accredited certification program (Institute for Functional Medicine), one has to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a healthcare field, depending upon the field. Some examples of potential degrees include:

How to become a functional medicine practitioner

One can come to FM from a wide range of medical professions. What they would all have in common is the fact that they use the philosophies of FM to guide their practice. This means a detailed examination and understanding of the patient from birth (genetics) up to their present health concerns. How did they get where they are today? How and why is their life the way it is now? This is everything from gathering information on diet and exercise to getting lab work done to better understand how the patient’s body is currently functioning.

A functional medicine practitioner’s efforts may feel far more intrusive than the typical medical history sheet one fills out in a traditional doctor’s office, but a practitioner who believes in FM need to understand the patient inside and out in order to make a better determination of the root cause of the health issue. This is also done to better help the patient engage in fixing the problem and regaining better overall health in order to prevent further problems.

The FMP will (based on the IFM accredited coursework) cover the following 6 general health areas:

  • GI
  • Environmental Health
  • Bioenergetics
  • Hormone
  • Cardiometabolic
  • Immune

When working with chronic health issues, which is what functional medicine practitioners usually do, the relationship with the patient is even more important because the healing involved is a process, taking time and work from both sides. The FMP is likely to be a more actively engaged participant in the healing process. So, if this kind of interaction gives you pause, becoming a functional medicine practitioner might be something to reconsider.

How To Become A Functional Medicine Practitioner

Technically, one could read a book on Functional Medicine or work with someone who practices it and then claim that they do too. There are a number of programs, however, that offer training and coursework along with certification, but only one currently exists that is actually accredited. This program is through the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM).

In 2014, the IFM affiliated itself with the Cleveland Clinic, which began its own Center for Functional Medicine. The IFM program is now recognized by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME). It is the only program to achieve this level of credibility.

Other programs offer “certification” (meaning you completed their program and passed an exam), which doesn’t mean the programs are any less ambitious. They include the following:

Other programs that offer training for specialized groups include:

You could also take an entire degree program in functional medicine, but the options are limited to the one affiliated with IFM and the Cleveland Clinic. Other programs are more related to integrative medicine programs, though similar, and offer a slightly different approach. The options here include:

How Much Does a Functional Medicine Certification Cost?

The costs for these programs can be expensive (upwards of $20,000), so the commitment to becoming a functional medicine practitioner needs to be there to make the investment worthwhile.

Other avenues might include working for someone in the field and being mentored or taking coursework apart from an actual program in order to work in a practice that utilizes functional medicine so that you can learn. Newer fields like this with little oversight will attempt to take advantage financially, so it’s best to be wary when exploring the options.

That said, the field is expanding rapidly so the opportunities are high as well. Other options might include health coaching programs, which require less financial investment, and if not a medical professional of some kind, can provide a way to utilize the exciting new field in a professional setting. Coaching programs deserve their own post and are beyond the scope of this one.

Functional Medicine Software & Tools

The next step after learning how to become a functional medicine practitioner is to learn which tools to use. While the functional medicine practitioner can generally make use of any app or software usable by other healthcare professionals, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

The IFM Toolkit itself contains several hundred items to help the FMP be successful with their patients. It includes items like:

  • Patient assessments and questionnaires
  • Intake forms
  • Screening tools
  • Lifestyle prescriptions
  • Food plan guides
  • Patient education materials on nutrition and other modifiable lifestyle factors
  • Clinical decision trees

These types of tools are available from many different resources, as they are not necessarily specific to functional medicine. However, these versions of the tools were designed with the FMP in mind and updated from FMP feedback, so they are going to be as closely attuned to the needs of an FMP as possible.

The toolkit does not require taking courses in the IFM program, but merely requires membership in the group, which likely makes the fee worth it on its own.

Other programs have their own materials, but given that IFM is the bar that all others strive to achieve, it is worth mentioning here as a basis for comparison when looking for particular tools to help with specific issues.

One functional medicine software worth adding to the screening process would be SelfDecode Pro. This software analyzes the patient’s genetics and lab work to produce actionable recommendations based on all of the client’s health information, which is the root of functional medicine.

As mentioned above, the functional medicine approach takes into consideration the patient’s history, genetics, lifestyle, diet, environment, and labwork to figure out what is causing their health issues and how to best address them.

With SelfDecode Pro, functional medicine practitioners are able to easily analyze their clients’ DNA and labs and create custom health regimens personalized to each client. SelfDecode also offers various lifestyle assessments and intake forms for a complete picture of the client’s health. The information is stored securely under each client’s profile for easy access.

Functional medicine software

SelfDecode Pro analyzes up to 83 million genetic variants and over 1,500 lab markers and offers over genetic reports for over 150 health topics such as gut health, inflammation, stress, and others. All in all, this functional medicine software can help practitioners decrease treatment planning time and focus on patient care and other revenue-generating activities.

Final Thoughts

Like every other healthcare field, it is not an inexpensive endeavor to get into. That said, there are a lot of opportunities out there right now as the field is developing and changing rapidly. It is only going to garner more credibility over time as more research is completed to validate it. As it gains credibility, it will continue to alter the medical landscape, generating even more change. Chances are good, if you are interested in a career in healthcare, that it is an exciting area to get into.

Understanding how to become a functional medicine practitioner is just the first step. For a thriving practice, it’s important to choose the right tools that will benefit both the practitioner and the client. Book a demo call today to discover if SelfDecode Pro is the right functional medicine software for your practice.

About the Author

Jim Duncan

Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.


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