how to become a functional medicine doctor

Last Updated on January 19, 2023

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how to become a functional medicine doctor

If you’re interested in how to become a functional medicine practitioner I have quite a bit to say on the subject so please read on.

I’ve personally worked with several thousand practitioners in the last twenty years showing them how to become a functional medicine doctor and have a deep understanding and appreciation for the various functional medicine degree programs. When I coach someone new to functional medicine I’m always looking for what is best for them, knowing that even if I send them to a different program from one I teach, if they get a benefit it works to all of our advantages in the long run.

There are two general categories you could be in. Those that already have a degree and those that don’t. If you have a MD, DC, ND, or Lac degree already then how to become functional medicine practitioner issues boil down to what starting point you have in mind. Do you want to learn the science and background underpinning of functional medicine first? If that is the case then the Institute of Functional Medicine has world-class courses for every significant area of practice. Start there with IFM’s introductory course and go on. If you want to learn about the coaching aspect of the work,  how to teach people about the best diet and exercise programs, then one of the stellar coaching programs out there is the best option. If you want to learn an area of specialization such as a focus on cancer patients, Lyme disease or genetic issues, then there are specific trainings in each of those areas. The quite amazing thing is at this point in my career I am very familiar with and oftentimes friends with the various doctors that teach all these programs. We all, myself and the other doctors teaching this work, have your best interests at heart and rather than seeing any sense of competition I am very clear that we are all mission oriented. Therefore we all work together cooperatively to help folks like you build a practice.

Practical Clinical Application

My specific niche is practical application of clinical protocols and lab interpretation along with practice management and patient education techniques. In other words, I teach what I do with patients. I’m one of the few teachers who still runs a practice and so I continue to develop my focus on practitioner mentorship type educational programs. Many of my colleagues are more into research and they are far superior for situations where a doctor wants to specialize in an area such as treatment of cancer patients or Lyme disease or complex neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or dementia. My programs are for the generalist who wants to get started and learn the basics. If you want practical application and clinical knowledge then my courses, such as the Kalish Method Mentorship are the perfect program to start you on your new career path.

To learn more about becoming a Functional Medicine practitioner, please see our full range of available training courses available to you!

I also have watched my students go on in their careers and everyone ends up taking multiple courses so as much as possible I would like to act as a resource, not just to funnel people into my online functional medicine training programs but also as a mentor that can help you with the many key moments in your career when choices come up. I’m old enough now to go to conferences and see on the speaker list several doctors that were still in school when they did my training! This is a wonderful experience for me, as I feel my role as a teacher is elevated when I see my students become thoughtful leaders and researchers developing the next level of treatment options for patients.

Become a Functional Medicine Practitioner

If you are really just starting out and don’t have a degree yet, you have many opportunities in front of you. The interesting thing about functional medicine is the discipline can be practiced very successfully by people with a wide range of professional backgrounds. I do find some professional licensing makes a huge difference and that those that are unlicensed health coaches or unlicensed nutritionists have a much tougher go of things than those that pursue an advanced degree. This is because even just ordering functional medicine tests can become problematic without a degree.  That being said there are some exceptional health coaches out there that contribute to functional medicine in many ways.

I opted to become a chiropractor in order to practice functional medicine simply because in the late 1980’s California didn’t license naturopaths and the acupuncture schools didn’t seem like the best option way back then and I thought about medical school but it didn’t seem like the best fit for me. I took one trip to Cambridge, MA and met with an alumnus from my undergraduate school that was a professor at Harvard Medical School. We had lunch and toured around and let’s say I didn’t resonate with the vibe there! I’m a simple let’s do this now, let’s not be limited type personality and felt much more at home in the slightly wild, wild west atmosphere of functional medicine back in those days. Let’s call it a nonconformist attitude perhaps. Much has changed since the 1980’s, from hair styles to pop music, and functional medicine has moved on considerably as has the rest of our culture, now you can operate under a ND license in California and the many schools of Chinese Medicine are top notch and well developed and I see large numbers of folks from those schools pursuing work in functional medicine. The chiropractic profession is still strongly represented within functional medicine and of course the largest growth I’ve seen is within the medical field where we now see MD’s and NP’s building functional medicine clinics in ever-larger numbers.

What is the Best Training to Prepare for a Career in Functional Medicine?

Depending on your previous schooling and general aptitude I think many of the professional licensing school options are viable, from medical school to naturopathic medical school over to a chiropractic degree or degree in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Some practitioners really want the option to adjust medications, prescribe medications and have a more full service clinic that balances conventional medical care with functional medicine in which case an MD, NP, or DO degree makes the most sense. Others have a more anti-conventional medicine approach in mind and want to combine functional medicine with Chinese medicine, chiropractic or naturopathy.

I honestly at this point don’t think it matters what you choose in terms of professional programs controlling your potential success in functional medicine. In other words there is no best or ideal training, it’s more what suits you and your overall career goals.  For me as a chiropractor I’ve been so happy, I would not want to nor was I ever interested in prescribing drugs. The sight of blood makes me a little dizzy, so medical school would have been a challenge and I really like the structural component of healing that chiropractors are so good at. I have other close friends who are the absolute best doctors of functional medicine that combine functional medicine skills with their conventional medical training. My favorite example of this happened a few years ago when I was at a cabin in the woods and one friend came down with an allergic reaction to a food and my MD doctor buddy ran to his room, grabbed his doctor bag (yes an old fashioned black leather bag he carries with him) and offered the allergy sufferer a homeopathic remedy or a prescription to stop the allergic attack! Knowing both worlds of conventional medicine and functional medicine is a powerful combination. If you can handle getting into and getting through medical school then go for it.

I also see doctors of Chinese medicine really excel at the work because their original training is systems oriented. They see a complex web of meridians and energy systems and organ systems in the body as part of their basic training in Chinese medicine and this carries over quite well to a functional medicine practice. Also acupuncturists tend to have good energy and enjoy the coaching and hand holding aspects of the work. Chinese medicine blends exceedingly well with functional medicine, in a way it is quite seamless. Be on the lookout for specific state law related issues as there are some states that do not allow acupuncturists to order lab tests, although that is rare.

And the naturopaths, oh the naturopaths! They have all the natural medicine training on herbs and nutrients and clinical applications of natural hormones and so on, so once again their background brings a richness to a functional medicine practice. The reality is I don’t know if we’d even have functional medicine if it weren’t for the development of naturopathic medicine in the first place. Naturopathic schools and the acceptance of the degree seem to be on the rise in my lifetime with greater and greater acknowledgement of their role in our healthcare system. Again be on the lookout for state to state related issues in terms of licensing for ND’s, as it varies quite a bit and if you for sure want to practice in a state that doesn’t allow ND’s to be licensed, as happened to me in the 1980’s in California, then you may want to rethink things.

Many Disciplines Within Functional Medicine

I went to chiropractic college, but upon graduation my two main teachers in the area of functional medicine and clinical nutrition were naturopaths and further, I was trained by an MD, a well known one named Dr. John R. Lee, in the use of natural progesterone. So even outside of whatever specific licensing program or degree program you choose there are many opportunities to learn from other professionals and become cross trained so you cover all the bases you need to build the type of practice you want.

I also see such a variation in types of functional medicine clinics. There are clinics like mine where we just do a simple version of functional medicine. There are complex clinics that treat Lyme, toxic mold, Parkinson’s and cancer patients. There are MD’s combining a psychiatric practice with functional medicine and those combining diabetes treatment with functional assessments. We see acupuncturists doing half functional medicine and half Chinese medicine depending on the patient’s needs and the same with ND’s and chiropractors. Really it’s a very open area with much room for interpretation and the ability for you to put your own unique stamp on the clinic you want to create.

functional medicine certification programs

Best Functional Medicine Practitioner Degree & Training Programs

There are many types of functional medicine practitioner training programs and I thought it worth laying out the history and development of the field so those of you who are now coming into the field can pick the best program for you. At the same time, I’d like to share my experience as to what I think are the best functional medicine practitioner degree and training programs out there. Of course, I teach one of them! But I’ve always been most successful when I am most honest with potential students and have done and continue to refer students to other courses if they seem like a better fit. There are doctor centered Functional medicine degree programs, functional nutrition programs designed for non-doctors, there are coaching programs (more focused on the psychology of lifestyle change), clinical nutrition programs that delve into the physiology. Programs that specialize on one group, cancer patients, cognitive decline or autoimmunity. There are plant-based conferences and Paleo conferences. There are the classic yearly meetings in person in New York (IHS) and San Diego (AIHM). There are the larger teaching institutes, IFM and A4M, there are the programs like mine at Kalish Institute that are all practical and skill acquisition oriented, and everyone really everyone takes a multitude of training on to get up to speed. One needs to know a lot about many areas to be successful in functional medicine and I wanted to write up a piece on my take on the educational landscape. I also want to comment on the idea of a functional medicine doctor degree program and help folks see that as of yet we don’t have a single, official functional medicine doctor degree program that everyone in practice is required to follow. Someday the field will consolidate around a single functional medicine doctor degree program but that is likely a decade or more in the future.

Back in the 1980’s much of what we now call functional medicine was just beginning and Functional medicine doctor degree training programs were in a formative stage. Although if you want to trace the theories and practices to their origins one could go back several thousand years when physicians and healers in all cultures throughout the world used diet and herbal treatments to great effect. In my mind what separates out functional medicine from the larger field of natural medicine is more than just that we are offering non-drug, non-surgical treatments, the unique thing we have is the development of functional medicine lab testing. So while a typical functional medicine patient plan might include a diet change, breathing exercises, the use of berberine and oregano extracts along with some human connection – and yes, all of these treatment options have been used for centuries – what makes functional medicine new and special is the ability to determine what food changes, herbs and vitamins you may need based on lab tests. Another unique and super cool aspect of functional medicine is the ability to use the labs to see exactly how the physiology of the patient is disturbed so you can treat people based on dysfunction and not based on symptoms.

In the 1980’s when I first became aware of functional medicine there were only a handful of lab testing companies that specialized in functional testing, Great Smokies, Diagnotechs, Genova, Metametrix. They were all run by very entrepreneurial, very cutting edge leaders in this emerging field. Jeffrey Bland, PhD came around every year to every metropolitan area and lectured on the hot topics of the day (which are incidentally still the hot topics), GI health, detoxification, mitochondrial function and hormones. There were only a small handful of supplement companies too. Metagenics and Douglas Labs were established, as was Allergy Research Group while Thorne Research and Designs for Health and Pure Encapsulations were just getting started in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Everyone was trying everything. There was not yet an “Institute for Functional Medicine” or much of any organization heading up the educational efforts. It was back then all individual teachers teaching individual students. There was no best functional medicine training. I had the great good fortune of having three mentors over the course of a dozen years each of whom spent a good four plus years training me full time in clinical nutrition and functional medicine lab assessment and patient communication skills. There were however a lot of conferences and seminars, workshops and lunch and learns. So, I would traipse off and spend most weekends and at least one night a week at a talk or presentation. Most of the time they were sponsored by a lab or supplement company and were directed toward selling specific products.

Health Comm was one of the most well respected seminars and I would attend these (led by Jeffrey Bland) every year. Eventually Dr. David Jones and others organized and created a whole new separate entity which we now call IFM. IFM was the first education only group that I had heard of and they continue to this day to have the best functional medicine training and live in person courses. The IFM lectures are all taught by experienced clinicians, many of whom have been teaching for 30 plus years. They incorporate all the latest science and the lectures are updated year to year to reflect the growing body of evidence showing clinical efficacy and treatment rationales that people in practice so desperately need.

The lectures tend to be densely packed with information and are best absorbed by people who already have some type of advanced degree in the health sciences, i.e. there is a fair amount of assumed knowledge and someone without basic courses in physiology and pathology might easily become lost. IFM classes are also excellent introductions to the field of functional medicine for those now in conventional medical practice that are considering a move into the field. As a functional medicine training experience, I think of IFM as the “medical school” of functional medicine. In depth courses, world renowned faculty, fast paced and with a steep learning curve. For many years they were only available as in person events which required a decent amount of travel and lost time away from work, now much of their curriculum can be done via live stream and on-line.

I’ve sat through every IFM lecture on offer (a three year program in total) at least two or three times. I learn more each time and as I mentioned each year they are updated. For the average practitioner getting certified through IFM is a very important goal. This gets you on the IFM website and opens up a large world of patient referrals from the roughly 1 million potential patients looking for IFM certified doctors each year.

There is also a group called A4M which started as an educational group focused on anti-aging medicine. Again, late 80’s maybe early 90’s they started to take off and more and more doctors got involved. As the anti-aging moniker implies, they are more focused on aesthetics and prevention and many A4M doctors combine their services with plastic surgery or other beauty enhancing type treatments like skin treatments and so on. A4M is a much larger group and where IFM in my mind has always attracted the doctors focused on chronic illness, the chronic fatigue, anxiety, fibromyalgia, autoimmune type patient base, A4M has focused more of patient practices prescribing hormones and more youth enhancing, anti-aging approaches to health care.

The reality is many doctors if not all, go to both IFM and A4M events over time and many of the teachers switch back and forth. And over the years I’ve been involved I’ve seen A4M embrace a much for “functional” approach in their course offerings responding to the greater interest in functional medicine from both the public and practitioners. Not that anti-aging is at all “out of style” in fact I think there is almost a resurgence of interest in that area now. A4M also has focused primarily on in person conferences, also like IFM they teach “modules” and have a core curriculum you can go through or, any many doctors chose to, you can just attend the modules that interest you and not complete the whole program.

IFM’s modules include hormones, GI, detoxification, immune, energy, cardiometabolic and they have an excellent broad one-week course they call AFMCP. Again A4M has modules that are similar hosted by Dr. Mimi Guarini, at IHS which is in NY city every February. There is also a plant based doctor yearly meeting in October and one for the metabolic therapeutic cancer docs, and so on down the line to smaller and more topic specific specialty events.

I had been attending conferences on the seminar circuit beginning in 1992 and got a bit burned out with all the travel and was frustrated with having to assemble all this knowledge from different areas and try to make a single patient model and practice model out of all these bits and pieces of information. Once I started teaching in the mid-1990’s I followed the only model in existence then, teaching in person weekend seminars. Eventually by 2006 I was tired of teaching weekend seminars where I felt we were introducing a subject like hormones or GI but not really getting clinicians enough depth of knowledge and certainly not holding their hand case by case as my hand had been held by my mentors. From 1992 through 2006 I had seen the same cycle of doctors coming to a weekend course, getting excited and then not implementing anything new in their practice. Then coming back the next year to our next conference and repeating the cycle. So I decided to set up my own clinician training program and I wanted it to be as long as possible. Back then the longest amount of time I could possibly imagine working with someone was six months. I also knew that something magical happens at the six-month mark in that it is just enough time to see your first cycle of patients coming to the point where many profound physiological changes have occurred and this amount of time allows the practitioner to see the power of the work. So I started my first on-line six month mentorship program. As I developed professionally, I learned more and extended the program to it’s present one year length.

In 2006 when we launched the first group, around 15 doctors signed up and I gave two one-hour lectures live on a webinar each week and we had 30 minutes each session to review labs. I put together a 400 page clinical manual and taught that class for several years over and over again until I finally realized I could just record the lectures and post them on line and focus during the weekly live sessions on lab review.

Up until 2019 I personally taught every doctor and every class. That’s well over 1,000 students in 6-12 month increments. I’ve gotten to know many of these doctors well as we have our weekly case reviews and I speak with them in detail about their practices. I can now go to most any conference in our field and spot at least one or two speakers on stage who took my course way back ten plus years ago. My dedication to creating the next generation of functional medicine clinicians has truly come to fruition in a way I could never have imagined when we first launched the Kalish Institute.

There are other online programs, the two most popular that I hear about all the time are Chris Kresser’s course and Functional Medicine University. Chris has an excellent one-year program and many students have taken his course and my course. He focuses on Paleo diets whereas I have a more agnostic approach to food and he teaches more types of labs, my courses are limited. Last time I spoke with him he did not teach the same labs I do, I think we overlap in both teaching adrenal, female hormone and GI workups but I do the organic acids, fatty acids and amino acids and he does other more advanced testing and also does blood tests for thyroid etc. which I just skim over. I think our teaching styles are really different and our curriculum is different enough that if you look at our respective websites you could get a good sense of which of our classes you might take first, and as I mentioned a lot of people end up doing both.

FMU or Functional Medicine University goes way back, it’s 100% online, there is no live webinar or case review it’s just a pre-recorded curriculum. I think of it as mostly for chiropractors since everyone I’ve ever met that took the class was a DC. I hear generally positive feedback about FMU as a good introduction/background course.

There is functional diagnostic nutrition training and associated functional diagnostic medicine training. The functional diagnostic nutrition training title is typically associated with practitioners that are not MD’s and are licensed in other ways.

My mentorship is completely different in that I’m focusing 100% on practical instruction and skills development. Lab interpretation skills and patient communication skills. I don’t have any theoretical lectures about the concepts around functional medicine and assume you can acquire that elsewhere. If you are in a place where you are already sure you want to DO functional medicine and are nervous about how to start and how to set up clinically impactful programs, that’s where my course comes in.  Although we are light in terms of lectures on physiology we get pretty deep into the details during the live calls as we analyze labs from the microbiome to organic acids.

There are other courses out there I am not going to get into detail on because they are all more niche oriented and not in the category of general clinical trainings but I want to mention them because number one these are all amazing classes and number two these are all good friends of mine I want to support. So in no particular order: Nalini Chilkov has incredible course on cancer, David Brady has one on fibromyalgia, Ben Lynch has one on genomics, Nathan Morris build Pure Genomics, Sam Yanick has the autoimmune/immune program called Cogence, Michael Ruscio has a book on gut, Sachin Patel does business and practice building, Kara Fitzgerald has a mentorship course, Isabella Wentz and Amy Meyers both teach on thyroid, James Maskell has a marketing course, Mark Hyman teaches everything,  Datis Kharrazian teaches everything too, Dale Bredesen and Nate Bergman do the cognitive decline thing, everything Mark Menolascino or Kristi Hughes touch is gold, of course Jeffrey Bland is still leading the field and my own current mentor Dr. Richard S. Lord rocks!

I’m sure I missed about 20 people in there, be sure to check the IFM faculty list Joel Evans, Monique Class, Filomena Trindade, Robert Rountree, Dan Lukazer, David Haase, Patrick Hanaway, that entire team of faculty are the true legends and superhero’s of the field and anything they teach is a “must know”.

I also have some general experience with online teaching vs. in person conference attending. I have taught all my mentorships online because I wanted to have people engaged for a full year and don’t have room in my house to set up a student dorm! So for my teaching requirements and for the flexibility the online format works perfectly. However, I still attend at least 10 in person live conferences each year and every one of them, every single one is of value. Meeting people in person, going out for dinner or having a drink with colleagues, having face to face time is required for one to build a practice and career in functional medicine. My entire teaching career has been developed at in person conferences even though I teach primarily online classes! If you are wanting to keep current with the field and stay emotionally connected to the people who are leading this movement you need to attend at least two or three live in person events a year. We need that human contact. We need the inspiration and the rededication that comes from connecting with people in person. The other benefits include meeting your vendors, the people that run the supplement and lab companies, meeting new friends and getting a level of educational stimulation that just is different to the online experience.

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