Conventional Docs vs. Functional Providers (and Why You Should have Both)

You may have heard about functional practitioners and maybe even know someone that has been to one. You may wonder, what’s the difference between this provider and your “conventional” doctor? Should you consider going to see one? Basically, both providers are interested in helping you get to better health. The fundamental difference is in the philosophy of their practice. Having both practitioners on your team can help provide a well rounded look at your health status. Here, I outline the differences, the benefits, and the cons of both practices. This should help you decide if a functional doctor is right for you. 

(For purposes of this post, a conventional, traditional, or regular doctor has a title of MD or DO)

Conventional Vs. Functional: What are their training and credentials?


Conventional: Broadly speaking, an MD or DO doctor has undergone many years of schooling, residency training, and if they choose, a few more years of specialized training. They are trained in conventional methods to diagnose and treat disease. While doctors spend many years in school, a small portion of the training focuses on nutritional or pharmacological education. I do want to note that in some cases, nutritional guidelines taught in med school are funded by big food*. This does not mean your doc will form biases because of this, it simply means that this is what they are taught in school.

*Big Food examples: Nestle, Pepsi, JBS, Tyson, Kraft, etc.. think super rich, huge corporations that “dominate the production and sale of food” according to Sentient Media.

Functional: This provider must already hold a license as a healthcare professional to obtain certification as a functional provider. Functional medicine relies on traditional medical training as the basis for knowledge. You will find many MD’s/DO’s have moved functional medicine into their practice. However, it is important to note that not all functional providers are MDs/DO’s. Many different healthcare professionals like nurses, psychologists, chiropractors, or pharmacists can become licensed as functional providers. These providers receive extensive training in testing, nutrition, and supplements. Functional medicine still has a stigma of being “quackery” and has yet to be seen as a legitimate medical service in many circles.


Thomas Edison quote regarding the doctor of the future
Thomas Edison quote regarding the doctor of the future.


Conventional vs. Functional: What is the fundamental difference?


Conventional: This is the doctor you go see for an annual check-up or when you’re not feeling well. You present to the office with some symptoms. In the average span of 15 minutes the doctor asks questions, does an exam, and requests labs or tests if needed. Based on the results, the doctor will diagnose the condition or send the patient to another specialist if required. Then the doctor or specialist comes up with your treatment plan. This may include lifestyle changes or medication to help treat the symptoms/condition, or both. Then you will follow up with the doctor at the specified interval to check if the plan is working or needs adjusting. Hopefully, at this point, a resolution has been achieved and you’re feeling better. If not, more tests will likely be necessary, and so on. 

Functional: These providers believe that good health is when all three components are in balance: mental, physical, and emotional. The body is treated as a whole and each component is important to the overall picture. So, this is all analyzed and provides a very personalized approach. A functional practitioner obtains a full patient medical history and detailed symptom analysis in a patient interview that can last 30 minutes or more. This provider focuses on finding balance and restoring the body’s normal functions to eliminate or manage conditions. They attempt to find the underlying or root cause of symptoms. They can also order labs or tests, and sometimes run tests a conventional doctor would not. The treatment plan consists of lifestyle changes, comprehensive nutritional programs, mental health practices, and supplements (instead of prescription drugs). If the condition cannot be safely treated with this plan, the functional provider will refer you to your “regular” doctor. 


An Example to Wrap your Head Around All of That:

Let’s say the patient’s been very tired, very cold, and can’t seem to lose weight no matter how much they try. The conventional doctor will run a thyroid test because these are common symptoms of low thyroid hormone. The TSH blood test confirms the diagnosis. The doctor will prescribe a thyroid medication to supplement the low levels and the patient’s next labs show the levels have normalized. Let’s say the same patient is still wondering, WHY? Why the low levels though? The medicine is just masking the problem, not really fixing it in this case. The conventional doc doesn’t really have an answer for this. So the patient goes to see a functional doctor. The functional doctor will run labs on everything to do with thyroid function (like T3, T4, reverse T3, and antibodies). Tests that would not normally be ordered by a conventional doc. As with the rest of the body, the thyroid gland requires balance. If one of those components is off, the treatment plan is targeted at the unbalance with lifestyle, food, and supplements. 


Natural foods versus medication
Natural foods to treat illness versus traditional medication.

Conventional vs. Functional: Pros and Cons


Pros of Conventional Docs:

  • They are crucial to your care in emergency situations and accidents, like heart attacks or accidents. 
  • They are abundant! There are many doctors and practices located conveniently and near mostly everyone. 
  • They have very well formed networks of specialists and hospitals. 
    • The specialists target specific parts of the body, like neurologists, ophthalmologists, podiatrists, etc
  • You can rely on ratings on the internet to find a good doctor. 
  • Most of these doctors are covered by insurance. 
  • If you find a good, responsive, and open-minded doctor, you have an ally in health for life!

Cons of Conventional MDs:


  • The majority of them are treating chronic medical conditions, like diabetes. (Not treating emergencies)
  • Their practice is primarily reactive, meaning they treat a condition that has already happened. 
    • Rarely, is a chronic condition curable. These docs work to prevent complications by prescribing medication. 
  • Nutrition and gut health is not a critical aspect to treating and managing conditions. 
  • These docs are BUSY!! Besides the 15 minutes they get to talk to you, they have many other patients! 

Pros of Functional Providers:

  • If you’re interested in a holistic approach to health, this is it. This provider will even ask if you were born vaginally and how’s your poop?
  • They incorporate other aspects of health into your treatment plan, not just medication. 
    • Examples: nutrition, detoxes, exercise, mediation, cognitive therapy, acupuncture, massage 
  • They will spend more time with you to get to know your lifestyle and what may or may not work. 
  • You can go to this provider even if you’re feeling OK, and then their practice becomes proactive, this is key.
  • There is a huge focus on nutrition and gut health. 
  • This provider will usually be up on the latest health trends and they may not align with conventional practice.
    • For example, if you ask your doc about fasting, they may not know while a functional probably will. 

Cons of Functional Providers:

  • Biggest con:  Since they are not recognized as legitimate providers by some insurances, they are not always covered. 
    • This includes the tests they order too. Which means you may have to pay out of pocket for the services and tests needed.
  • These providers are not easy to find and may be located at a distance. 
    • They may not have reliable reviews and it can be hard to find a good one. 
  • Not all the functional providers are MDs/DOs. You would have to make sure to check the licenses the provider has if you prefer that.

Conventional vs. Functional: The Case for Both

Both providers provide a necessary function. The conventional provider has the tools and connections if you have an active medical condition that requires immediate treatment. The functional provider can look into why the conditions exist and treat the root causes of a condition. With work-ups from both practitioners you can get an overall picture on what’s really going on. There are times when a regular doctor can’t figure out what’s going on and a functional may be able to help. If you can swing it, I would recommend having both providers on your health team. Even if you’re not feeling sick, seeing a functional provider for annual check-ups would help as a preventative measure to avoid chronic conditions in the future. 

If you don’t have a functional provider, do a google search and see if you can find a functional provider near you Reach out and ask what services they provide and if insurance covers their services (some insurances are starting to). It doesn’t hurt to ask and you might even find one that works for you! 

P.S. Personally, I go to Aligned Modern Health located in the Chicagoland area and highly recommend them. Not sponsored.



Soy Yo, Alma

Beinvenidas a Alma in Peaces, where you can find information to empower you on your journey to health and wellness.  I’m a perpetual seeker of knowledge and I want to share it with you. Not only am I a big nerd, pero también tengo la suerte de ser 100% Mexicana. Ajuá! Si se puede!

Follow Along

Stay Updated

 Subscribe to stay updated with the newest posts, resources, and much more!

Popular Posts

Scroll to Top
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap