Is Functional Medicine Becoming a Commodity?

A commodity is defined as any “basic” good or service that is produced to meet a marketplace demand. Commodities are, well, commonplace—interchangeable, and indistinguishable from other products or services of the same type.

Functional medicine should never be considered indistinguishable; widely accessible? Yes. Indistinguishable? No. I am deeply concerned that certain functional medicine enterprises are in danger of becoming a commodity.

Let me be clear: I am a staunch proponent of evidence-based integrative health—and the many names and nomenclature that fit under the movement’s umbrella.

The delivery of health ‘care’—true disease prevention and health creation—should be ubiquitous as the new standard of care; simply ‘good medicine’.

However, being ubiquitous and resembling commodity are not the same.

I worry about the commoditization of the integrative health space, especially when it comes to solo, private functional medicine practitioners and practices. More frequently I am seeing homogenous-feeling brands—physician brands and clinics devoid of authenticity, therefore hindering the ability to effectively and emotionally connect to prospective patients in the markets they serve.

Put simply, and sadly, I see a lot of robust CVs not being translated to powerfully effective personal and clinical brands.  This need not be the case. High-quality-directed practitioners and business owners need to rethink their investment in their own, special brand.

Where Do You Stand?

Clinicians and clinics are not ‘heroes’—clients, patients and prospects are. Functional medicine in its entirety begins with you, to the extent that you (and your brand) must earn the trust of those you wish to serve. This is especially true when you opt-out of insurance-based medicine, and must quickly convey why your cash-based business provides better overall solutions and value than the conventional provider or retail clinic storefront down the street. Brand differentiation is a must.

You are surrounded by all of the marketing technology ‘must-haves’, the courses, and masterminds; and the promises and ubiquity of the “once-and-done; done-for-you; template-driven; auto-script-generating; integrated digital marketing dashboards; … all yours for $29 per month”.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all-in for low-overhead practices and enterprises that are fiscally responsible. Not everything mentioned above lacks value; I advocate technology and modern communications as non-negotiable for reaching new customers, maximizing efficiencies and achieving success.

Realizing the holy grail of ‘scale’—to serve more with increased efficiency and performance—is an important objective for many business owners. Modern technology and marketing approaches exist to support the goal of creating a sustainable, flourishing business in service of high-quality patient/customer care.

Keeping overhead low, while following an intelligent business plan with conservative pro forma revenue projections, is critical to your success. But there is one thing I hold true: you must adequately and consistently invest in your brand and platform, otherwise you risk failure. This must be budgeted for.

Your brand is not technology or marketing. As important as these things are to your success, they are simply tools, tactics and strategies that support and amplify your underlying brand attributes.  

Building a small independent practice is challenging and laborious. Functional medicine may be the only area of medicine where small, private, ‘solopreneur’ practices are actually growing in volume, as compared to mainstream medicine, where hospitals and large group practices are busy ‘rolling up’ small, homogenous, mainstream practices, which otherwise would not survive under today’s unforgiving insurance model.

But this unlikely describes you. You are different.

You Must Do You

Your personal brand, clinical delivery approach, and business model are, well, uniquely yours: an innately distinctive voice that is steeped with authenticity; a personal story—often your own medical challenge that brought you to the integrative functional medicine field; and your special brand ethos that informs how you most meaningfully engage, educate, and earn the trust of your clients. It’s all yours, in service to those you aspire to help.

All of this must be skillfully and consistently articulated, applied, and activated across your brand—including your website, messaging and copyrighting, calls-to-action, email campaigns, collateral, and presentations. But is it?

Most likely you didn’t wake up one day and decide to become an integrative physician, dietary supplement manufacturer, lab director, media property, nonprofit director, or any one of a number of businesses or organizations that comprise this vibrant ecosystem.

And I doubt you entered the field singularly focused on becoming wealthy. Because, let’s face it: there are myriad fields more lucrative than integrative health. Perhaps not as fulfilling, but certainly more lucrative.

I participated in chronicling the Rise of Integrative Health and Medicine, so I understand the field’s vibrant history, as well as its current opportunities, and challenges.

But, regardless how the impact of population health is measured, I am certain only one viable long-term solution exists: comprehensive prevention over procedures; health creation—physical / psychological / emotional—over disease care; and root-cause resolution of chronic disease.

Those in this field are best-positioned to reap the professional and economic rewards, while improving the human condition. You are part of this revolution. Don’t choose ‘brand-less’ and blandness in service of “I just want to practice functional medicine”.  The care you deliver is not a commodity, though it should be ubiquitous.

Invest Your Time and Energy Where It Counts Most

I get it. You did not go to medical school excited about the day you would get to create a website, newsletters, consumer-facing blogs, videos, and learn all about modern marketing and brand positioning.

While it is imperative to understand what all these things are, how they fit together and why they are important to the success of your enterprise, this does not mean you need to personally invest in dedicated in-house human resources (at first), or rely purely on automation to get to the promised land of sustainable success.

It also does not require the investment of hundreds of hours of your time and treasure attending webinars, masterminds, online courses, and Facebook groups.

By all means, if you are a gung-ho DIYer, and chomping at the bit to augment your clinical work, family life, and personal health regimen, to become an effective, in-the-trenches brand developer and ‘marketeer’, in the hope of saving money in the long-term, then go for it.

Otherwise, seek professional guidance to avoid commoditizing your brand, marketing and messaging—and so that your brand doesn’t suffer the unnecessary opportunity cost.


investing in Your Integrative Health BrandAbout Glenn Sabin and FON / Glenn is director of FON Consulting, a leading strategy and business development consultancy specializing in the integrative health and medicine sector. FON’s clients span from medical practices, hospitals and health systems, to nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and media companies. Glenn brings economic and moral clarity to the misnomer that health creation and promotion cannot align with profitability.
Prior to launching FON in 2009, Glenn was the CEO of JazzTimes, Inc., an entertainment-based media and marketing agency headquartered in the Washington, DC metro area.  After a 25 year tenure, and achieving exponential revenue growth, Glenn exited JazzTimes, Inc. to launch FON.
The shift from entertainment media to integrative health. In 1991, Glenn Sabin was a 28-year-old newlywed diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), an incurable cancer. He created his own medically monitored and carefully researched lifestyle changes, including a whole foods predominantly plant-based diet. Glenn would conduct his own, informal, single patient clinical trial, which was chronicled by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and his personal oncologist Lee Nadler, MD, dean for clinical and translational medicine at Harvard Medical School. Glenn achieved a complete remission from CLL without conventional cancer treatment. His case is part of the medical literature.
Glenn is participating in, and advising Harvard’s Bioinformatics Department on its People-Powered Medicine NEER Study, an initiative investigating exceptional responders. He was the recipient of American College of Nutrition’s 2017 Communications and Media Award. In 2017 Glenn published his popular memoir, n of 1: One Man’s Harvard-Documented Remission of Incurable Cancer Using Only Natural Methods. www.fonconsulting.com, www.glennsabin.com