Welcome to the Evolution of Medicine podcast! In this episode, James sits down with Amy Mack, CEO of the Institute for Functional Medicine, to discuss IFM’s leadership in the functional medicine space and the pivots the organization has made in response to COVID-19. One of the biggest changes the organization faced was transitioning their Annual International Conference, considered one of the best and most well-attended educational conferences in functional medicine, to a virtual platform. While Amy acknowledges the challenges of building a virtual community, she is excited for all the 2020 conference has to offer, including perspectives on how we can build immune resilience within the fragile health of many populations. Highlights from this episode include:

  • How IFM’s COVID-19 Task Force supports the functional medicine community and plans for its continued guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • How we can take ideas at the bedrock of functional medicine, like immune resilience, and bring them into the mainstream
  • How IFM brought their Annual International Conference to the virtual space
  • What attendees will learn at AIC this year, and new opportunities for engagement and networking virtually
  • What IFM has planned for the future as the healthcare ecosystem continues to evolve
  • And so much more!

Resources mentioned in this podcast:

James Maskell: Hello and welcome to the podcast. This week we feature Amy Mack. She is the CEO of the Institute for Functional Medicine. In this episode, we talked about a number of things. We talked about the IFM’s COVID Task Force and what they’ve been up to the last few weeks since COVID. We talked about immune resilience in the population in this vulnerable population that we have and what we can do about it.
We talked about the upcoming Institute for Functional Medicine’s Annual International Conference, which we’ve attended for the last five years and will be completely virtual this year. It’s coming up on the 12th and 13th of June. If you want to attend, like we’re going to attend, you can find all the details in the show notes. Very inspiring, interesting conversation. Please enjoy.
So a warm welcome to the podcast, Amy. Welcome, Amy.
Amy Mack: Oh, thank you, James. I’m so glad to be here.
James Maskell: Great to have you here for your debut on the Evolution of Medicine podcast. Super excited to talk about all things to do with the annual conference and things that IFM has cooked up for that.
But I guess over the last two months here, IFM has been very busy with the IFM COVID Task Force. So let’s just start there. Where did this idea come from? How did it mature and what have you guys been up to for the last two months over at IFM?
Amy Mack: Oh, thanks for asking that question and thanks for having me on this morning, James. I’m excited to be here. So as we were starting to think about how we were going to respond to COVID, we started actually as an organization. What do we need to do for our staff? What do we need to do to make sure that we are keeping our faculty and registrants safe? And we realized we had a series of decisions to make.
And so we were doing a lot of operational things and then all of a sudden thought, “Actually, we have something so important to be contributing to where the world is focusing its attention on what we do around COVID. ” So I actually pulled together a small team led by Dr. Patrick Hanaway and with support from Dr. Joel Evans and then of course our internal team as well, and a series of faculty members that we’ve pulled in throughout the last several weeks to focus in on basically host defense, immune function and really how we can as individuals be preparing ourselves at this time while working to understand this illness that is caused by the COVID-19 virus.
And that work has culminated in a series of papers that really touch on nutraceuticals and botanicals. They touch on lifestyle factors that we know that play such a key role in boosting our immunity and really keeping us healthy during the time when we know that we need to be stronger than the norm.
So the papers that we have produced have really focused specifically around the function of our bodies and what it is in the immune system that can be assisted by a growing list of agents. And if you go to the website, you can click on and find more about it there.
James Maskell: Beautiful. Yeah, we’ll put all the details in the show notes so that people can find all of those assets. And it’s been great to see some of those webinars and some of the content coming out. I think very useful, not just for the clinicians in the space, but I think there’s a lot of people out there who are just looking for sort of expert guidance from some of the community that you have.
One of the things I really loved was your email a couple of weeks ago that you shared out just about functional medicine’s role in the COVID ecosystem generally. And what we should be sort of not just sort of sitting in the background, but actually stepping into the forefront. I’d love for you to just to share a little bit more on some of those thoughts, where they came from and how you see functional medicine’s role in this new world.
Amy Mack: Right. Well, the letter actually I wrote on a Saturday as I was honestly purchasing masks online for my family and realizing that the purchase of a mask for a 15-year-old was actually what it looked like and how he felt comfort-wise wearing it was going to be critically important. And I realized in that moment that I was actually really uncomfortable with the approach we had taken.
But I realized it was the only approach that we could take as a global community at that time, this idea of basically running into our homes and shutting the door. And what it presented to me was this kind of visual of being not only a set of vulnerable populations to this, to COVID-19, but in fact that all of us were vulnerable. And what does that mean?
Had we built a fragile society? A society that really this thing that we couldn’t see, but in our minds was sort of floating around us that the only thing we could do was shut ourselves inside. So I started to really come up with this idea that we had to be thinking about this much bigger than simply we were going to tackle this COVID thing, and then it was going to go away.
Then in fact, we really will be living with COVID for a very long time. And hopefully we won’t all suffer the effects of it, but that we needed to actually be able to live in society, not in our home. Eventually, we have to be able to come out and become part of the society that we hold to be so important and true to ourselves.
So I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I know you have been too, James. I’ve been doing a lot of reading. And the thing that keeps coming up is, “Well, let’s see, we can wash our hands. We can wear a mask if we want to go outside, but most of the time we should stay indoors.” It’s on signs everywhere. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. And yet we know that there are other ways. There are things that we can be doing through the approach of functional medicine to keep ourselves safe, that involve a lot more than covering our nose and mouth when we walk outside.
So I see this actually as a moment where functional medicine and really lifestyle medicine can have an open door that we can be sharing many more things that an individual in their home with their families and outside of their home, that can be doing. So we can be talking about the importance of sleep. We can be talking about the importance of diet. We can be talking about the importance of staying away from things that we know actually make us more vulnerable.
And they’re really things that we should be doing all the time, because we’re in this pandemic now. There will be a moment where it will feel like it’s going to get back to normal. It seems like it’s a long time off, but it will get back to normal. But how can we not put ourselves in a position where we find that the only option is going back indoors?
Now, if you sort of take that approach and knowing that a functional medicine approach to boosting immunity, to strengthening host defense, to really making our bodies function the way that they should. And then you think about where we are in the healthcare system, a healthcare system that is completely torn to shambles.
I mean, we have hospitals that need people working there, and yet they can’t actually afford to keep people working there. So how do we keep people out of hospitals that don’t need to be in hospitals? Well, a big portion of that is to help them fight and truly have a good defense against chronic disease.
And that’s really what IFM is teaching and that’s what functional medicine does best. And certainly it’s what you are promoting and have been promoting through the work of Functional Forum and other venues as well. So that’s kind of where my thinking has been and that’s really what led to that letter.
James Maskell: Well, that was amazing. Because you were at Bastyr back a couple of months ago when we did our live Functional Forum from Bastyr last announcing that 2020 was going to be the Year of Resilience. And so here we are with a serious stress for us all to be resilient to. And hopefully almost I think what you’re saying is that there’s a level of sort of anti-fragility where maybe it won’t just be about being resilient, but actually can medicine, can functional medicine come out of this stronger?
Can we actually take on some of these ideas that have been at the bedrock of functional medicine and bring them into the mainstream? Because mainstream medicine really doesn’t know that much about immune resilience, but there’s plenty of knowledge about that topic here in the functional medicine community.
Amy Mack: Absolutely, absolutely. And if you think about just extending that out into underserved communities as well, we’ve struggled I think in functional medicine to figure out how to open our arms and open our ability to serve.
And I know you’ve been thinking about that a lot as well, James and I’m excited to see some of the things that you’re doing that will help to really open that door and open up the opportunity for more people to experience the benefits of functional medicine.
James Maskell: Absolutely. Yeah, no, I really resonated with the concept that you shared is that there’s a lot more that we can do and I’m excited to see what we can do together on that end. So I know we’re only just a few weeks away here from the annual conference, the Annual International Conference of IFM.
For the last five years, I’ve showed up there, enjoyed the conference. We’ve made content about it. We’ve interviewed people there. Really as a way to showcase kind of like what’s happened each year. Ultimately, you have to take, I guess, what was probably a tough decision at a certain point to decide to do this online. Why did you decide to take it virtual and what was some of the thinking behind that?
Amy Mack: Yeah. Well, it was, as you can imagine, a very, very difficult decision to make. We really thought, we held onto the notion that we would be able to gather in the same way that we have every year. It is, I think, really the most important conference for functional medicine that happens every year. It happens at the same exact time, as you know. And in fact, we have those venues booked five years out.
So the planning for these things happens well, well in advance of actually the execution on the days that we’re together. So when we started to really think about, “Well, we probably needed to make the decision.” There were a lot of things that came into play.
First and foremost, we knew that we needed to actually be able to find a way for us to gather, but that as with our earlier decisions around some of our conferences in the spring, both domestically and internationally that the thing that was critically important was that we were keeping the safety and the health of our staff, our educators, our speakers, and our registrants in mind the entire time. But that had to be what was driving the way we were making our decision.
So it became clear pretty quickly that we needed to actually cancel the onsite event. But the thing that was hardest for all of us to let go was that loss of community that we knew we would feel I mean, as you know, James, you mentioned it. The conference that we all think about every year and coming together as AIC, that first time that you walk into the hotel and you see that first person that you recognize that you only see once a year. It’s such an amazing moment.
And so to sort of cut that short felt hard, but as we started having conversations, we realized there were lots of ways for us to be driving community even while we are running virtually. So this conference actually, well, pieces of it will be prerecorded. A lot of the content actually will happen live. We will be doing the work live.
In fact, I know both Dan and I will actually be onsite in our offices in Federal Way with Dan emceeing the event and me capturing material that I’ll be talking about at the frontend and at the end of the conference. And in-between, we’re still going to have cooking demos, which is one of the highlights of our event. There will still be opportunities for group meditation. We’re going to have smoothie making that will happening.
So we hope that people will join us from their kitchens and really participate in the work with us. We will have, as we always do, the virtual exhibit hall so that people still can get an opportunity to explore and find out and learn more about big number of companies and organizations that would have been in our exhibit hall this year.
And then we are actually trying a new program that will allow for virtual networking to happen between each other during those two days where we can set up some live opportunities for people to meet in groups as small as two to much larger than that. So we’re finding lots of ways for it to still feel interactive. We know that the community piece is still going to be hard, but we are working really hard to make sure that there are opportunities for people to still feel that.
It’s going to be the same great speaking quality. It will have the same, really high learning potential. CME will still be available for our practitioners. I think that we’re going to be touching on the main points that really drive what’s really important about AIC. And then if you think about, and we’ll talk, I know in a few minutes, about some of the speakers. But if you think about the moment in time where we are with COVID-19 and the work that is talked about every year at AIC, that work is what’s emerging.
What are some of the newest, most innovative ways to be thinking about a functional medicine approach to chronic disease? And in this case to be thinking about a functional medicine approach to a pandemic that is taking over our lifestyle right now. How do we bring that back? So there’ll be threads of that, that happens throughout the entire two days with all of our speakers.
I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be fun. It’s not going to be exactly the way it has felt in the past, but this could bring some new potential for new ways for us to keep interacting. And of course, we’re hopeful that we’ll be together again next year.
James Maskell: Yeah. Well, one of the things I’ve heard over the last few years is that people who would have been doing the streaming modules, right? Who have been doing the Advanced Practice Modules have found community and have enjoyed being just even in the chat room on the side of the content there. There was a lot of community happening. So I’d imagine that gave you a sort of at least an idea of the fact that community in a digital format was available and was possible.
And it sounds like taking it to the next level there. I look forward to checking that out and participating. So I guess one other thing I want to say is that for the last few years at IFM Annual Conference, there’s been a specific theme. And I feel like one of the things that I was looking forward to for this year was just that the theme is sort of like innovations in care.
So there’s a lot of different areas. And so it just feels like there’s something for everyone this year, whereas maybe in times gone by if you want a brain specialist in 2018, maybe it wasn’t your year. Maybe this can be everyone’s year international, national and otherwise.
Amy Mack: Yeah. I think we really did kind of twist that a little bit this year. And I think that will be our mode of operating going forward. We want to help people to understand that this is the conference where actually you can get the latest about what’s innovative and new in functional medicine and the approach of functional medicine. So instead of sort of narrowing that focus into one set of perhaps one line of chronic disease or one line of thinking, we wanted to open it up to really lots of different avenues for discussion.
And again, what we found was that actually the speakers that we have lined up, which we started lining up our speakers a year in advance, as you know. And the speakers that we have lined up are touching upon some of the most important things that actually are a part of the vulnerabilities that we’re now trying to address for COVID-19.
So if you think about Dr. Panda and talking about circadian rhythms and the importance of sleep, we know that reduced sleep makes you more vulnerable to all kinds of things, including COVID-19. Dr. Pizzorno will be talking about toxins and his driving force in that space and helping us to better understand how the importance of reducing the toxins in the environment, in our homes, in our food, in the way that we engage with the world, reducing that will keep us at a higher immunity level.
I think probably some, but not all, have heard Dr. Susan Prescott speak about really the planetary health. And when you think about the toxins piece that Joe Pizzorno is talking about, but then when we hear about Mark Hyman talking about the importance of food policy and the food industrial complex that ties into planetary health and how we’re treating the environment and what that means for us as individuals and our vulnerability to disease and an illness.
Of course, lots of time will be spent thinking and talking about nutrition and in that space in particular, diet, time-restricted fasting and mimicking diets will be discussed with a couple of different speakers. And I think one of the most exciting parts of the conference is that in addition to the threads of importance of all the lifestyle pieces of functional medicine, and really that bottom of the matrix, we will, for the first time from the stage, be talking very intentionally around the transformation of healthcare.
And we had long before all of the COVID-19 pandemic started, we had engaged with Tracy Gaudet and her new venture with the Walton Family Foundation and the Whole Health Initiative. And the work that she will be talking about and the place for functional medicine in that work should be on the minds of all of us. It gets back to where we started talking about in this conversation, which is the vulnerability of populations, not just some populations, but all of us. That vulnerable space and the vulnerability of our healthcare system, a healthcare system that was already broken.
And now is not only broken, but honestly is going to struggle to find worth after all of the dust clears. And when does the dust clear and what does that look like? So to have Tracy really close out the two days with a talk around the transformation of healthcare, and really I think be making a call to action for our functional medicine practitioners to be thinking about the role they play in their individual practices, with their patients in their community in driving better healthcare. Better results and outcomes for patients, lower costs, better healthcare for individuals around the globe.
It’s exciting actually. We will have international registrants online with us. And as you know, the scope of healthcare around the globe is very different and where we’re seeing progress and where we’re seeing fallback and how we as functional medicine practitioners, clinicians, and policymakers can be driving change is not only critically important just because we need to actually be getting it right. We can’t have dropping outcomes and escalating costs anymore, but we have to be doing it now.
And in fact, I believe in this moment where there’s a lot of chaos in the healthcare market is an opportunity for functional medicine to shine. So this conference brings together all those pieces starting out with kind of Dr. Bland and being the founder all the way to where does healthcare go and everything in-between. It’s just going to be a great lineup.
James Maskell: Yeah. That’s really great. I’m super excited about that. And I know it’s also the transition sort of in five-year plans, right? So I remember in 2016, learning about the five-year plan up until now, and then obviously moving forward.
What are some things that we can look forward to at that conference about what IFM sees is possible? Let’s say in the next five or 10 years with this maturing ecosystem.
Amy Mack: Yeah. So are in the last year of our strategic plan. You’re right about that. And really in this final year, we are working on how we continue to build a foundation for IFM to do the work that it is called to do. And that really falls into a couple of buckets to set us up for where we go next. So those buckets really are around building the confidence and competence of practitioners.
How do we put the right tools in the hands of practitioners to be able to confidently and competently practice functional medicine? The tools get put into the hands of practitioners through a highly accessible set of education and training tools. So how do we actually continue to make education palatable and something that is easily accessible and digestible for our practitioners? So they can learn it on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and they can bring it into their offices on a Monday.
How can they take it from learning to application immediately for better health of their patients? And then the work that we are setting up our real role to play is how do we continue to push the buyability of functional medicine? And I think James, when I think about the work you’ve been doing for functional medicine over the last six years, and really pushing to get even the words into the minds and the voices of many people around the globe. That’s work that actually at IFM, we haven’t done a lot of.
We’ve been really honing our skillset around building education and training in such a way that we are building a real army of practitioners to be practicing at a high-quality level. It’s time now for us to really step into that policy space and step into this space where we’re helping others to be able to communicate about the importance of functional medicine and the role that functional medicine can play.
And I think that extends on. It actually extends on beyond the audience that we’ve been primarily talking to, to actually that next tier start talking to patients. Actually engaging in conversations with patients that right now have the will, they have the desire. And in fact, they are demanding to have better healthcare. So how do we start to put that voice into play? How do we start to equip a practitioner with the ability to not only be practicing, but to be having really thoughtful, intentional conversations about what functional medicine can bring?
And I think through shared voices with you, James, and others, that’s where we’re going to be heading next is how do we start to play that role of really widening the widespread adoption? Really doing more than being an educator, but actually showing how it can bring true change to healthcare.
James Maskell: Yeah. Look, wow, you’re speaking on my language a 100% and I think one of the things that I would just reflect on is this sort of in the functional medicine space if you’ve been around, we’ve been saying this for a long time and nothing’s really changed. We see the problems that are in front of us. We see that we have the solutions and it’s just like, “Hey, can we just marry these two things?”
And the thing that I’m excited about with regards to COVID is just really the breaking of inertia, right? So much doesn’t change because there’s so much inertia in the physician side, in the patient side. Everyone’s just sort of going on as normal because nothing’s really broken. And I think one of the things that we’ve seen, like on the doctor side, you have doctors in primary care and family medicine and all the way through the system who are just like, “The system is broken. We really need to do this very differently.” And are looking for what is the solution to that, that creates health and facilitates a more resilient population?
And then on the patient side, people have been making calculations in their head as to, “Oh, is it all right for me to eat this junk food or go for months on end without sleeping?” Because they had a sort of a risk-reward thing in their mind as far as like where they could push it to get what they wanted and ultimately COVID comes along and probably changes that risk-reward.
And so now there’s an urgency for people to participate in their health. And I’m excited to see what that like inertia break leads to and I agree. Setting up the army 10 years ago, it was not possible for functional medicine to do anything at any reasonable scale. And I see that in the next decade, that is not only possible, but definitely going to happen in my mind.
So I appreciate you thinking in those terms too and I’m excited for this year’s conference. I know you know a lot of practitioners who are out there, one of the things that going through their mind when they’re thinking, “Oh, what conference should I get into?” Is like a few different things. It’s the communities, the learning, but also CME is a big deal. And I just love to hear you share a little bit about that.
Because having been in the business at one point in my life of trying to work out CME, I’d love for you just to talk into that, because I know that that can be kind of a process that’s difficult and were there any problems with that doing it online and what can practitioners expect from that for this year?
Amy Mack: Thanks for asking. So practitioners can expect to be able to access the same number of CME that have been accessed before. It is a different process that we go through to ensure that we are to offer CME, but we are going through that process and we don’t envision any challenges with that. So it’s that link between continuing medical education, functional medicine in healthcare is critically important. We as functional medicine faculty and educators and clinicians and policymakers can’t lose sight of the fact that actually within our community, the approach of functional medicine is the generally accepted approach.
It’s the approach that we lean on to make our patients better individually, personalized, make our patients better. And that idea of being generally accepted, that’s the notion of that continuing medical education sits on. We should be teaching the newest, generally accepted way of treating patients. And as a holder and provider of continuing medical education credits and providing opportunities for our participants and practitioners to learn more, it is not only the thing we do it is our responsibility to do it.
So we are doing it at the highest quality possible. We are making sure that what we are providing is safe, valid and effective. Those are the marks that we have to hit to make sure that actually what we’re teaching is appropriate for patient care. And we’re hitting all those marks with our speakers that will be at AIC and with all of our programs throughout the year.
James Maskell: Beautiful. Well, look, I know that you know that it’s not always easy to run a ship as important as the functional medicine community and the Institute for Functional Medicine. And certainly pivoting to an online conference that is normally a thousand people. I know that’s not always easy, but I appreciate your leadership and making this whole thing happen. I’m excited to be there again and to connect with people as ever.
I’ve certainly found the last few years, I always met interesting people at IFM and it does bring together a group of people that are really interested in transformation. So I look forward to being there. If you want to get more information about this year’s conference and you want to sign up, you can go to the show notes and we’ll have all the details in there about signing up for this year’s conference.
It’s coming up the 12th and 13th of June. You can watch it pretty much from anywhere in the world and we’ll look forward to hopefully seeing you there. Thank you, Amy, for being part of the podcast and look forward to seeing what’s next.
Amy Mack: James, thanks for having me on. Always Nice to be with you.
James Maskell: All right. Well, this has been the Evolution of Medicine podcast. We have been with Amy Mack. She’s the CEO of the Institute for Functional Medicine. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.


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