People often talk about ‘holistic medicine’ and ‘holistic practitioners’ as if holism were a speciality like acupuncture or homoeopathy. In fact the word ‘holistic’ describes an approach, an attitude and a philosophy rather than any specific type of medical practice. A registered medical practitioner working as a family doctor or general practitioner can just as easily practise ‘holistic medicine’ as can any practitioner of alternative medicine.
The word ‘holistic’ was first introduced by the South African philosopher and statesman Jan Christian Smuts in ‘Holism and Evolution’ (1926). Smuts disapproved of the way that scientists and philosophers tried to analyse people and study them as a collection of separate parts. In his book he suggested that the whole human being is much more than (and quite different to) a collection of physical or emotional parts.
The word and the concept lay more or less forgotten until the 1970s when the growth of high-technology medicine led to a revolution among patients and health-care professionals who felt that the modern, aggressive, interventionist approach to healing was quite unsatisfactory.
For over half a century doctors had shown tremendous enthusiasm for specialisation. Suddenly there was a widespread feeling that the fragmentation had gone too far. There was also a strong feeling that the ‘fragmentation’ approach did nothing to help doctors deal with the problems produced by reactions between individuals and their environment.
The consequent search for a more general and more humane approach to health care was nothing particularly new, of course. The Hindus and the Greeks all followed a ‘holistic’ philosophy several thousand years ago.
But after decades of super-specialisation and high-technology medicine the holistic approach seemed new and exciting. The holistic (or wholistic) approach gathered numerous admirers from all sections of society; it brought together psychosomatic medicine (an approach which emphasises the interdependence of physical and psychological factors), behavioural medicine (in which the psychosocial causes and effects of illness are studied), and humanistic medicine (which emphasises the importance of a close relationship between the doctor and his patient).
In practical terms this revolution in medical caring meant that instead of regarding patients as sick livers, kidneys or hearts, doctors and other interventionists tried to meet the individual physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs of their patients. The holistic approach meant that practitioners tried to deal with social and human problems as well as physical ones; that they began to share responsibility with the patient rather than dictating to him; that they tried to use the healing powers of nature and the self-healing powers of the individual and that they tried to spend more time helping patients to understand how psychological processes can be turned into physical symptoms.
The word ‘holistic’ describes an attitude not a discipline. And it is an attitude that can be shared and enjoyed by orthodox practitioners as well as by alternative practitioners.
The holistic practitioner will use the best diagnostic techniques that are available. If high-technology equipment will improve his or her chances of making an accurate diagnosis – without damaging the patient – then he will use high-technology equipment.
Holistic practitioners use many different treatment techniques. They will use drugs when drugs offer the best hope; they will use acupuncture if acupuncture offers the best solution; they will use homoeopathy, surgery or osteopathy. They are truly eclectic in their endeavours. Most important of all they will give precedence to the patient’s own natural healing powers.
In my view, the holistic approach is an unusually safe one.
In recent years the term ‘holistic practitioner’ has been abused and misused by thousands of orthodox and alternative practitioners. Orthodox medical practitioners who dabble in acupuncture (after a weekend course) will describe themselves as ‘holistic’. Alternative practitioners who use iridology, reflexology and a little herbalism to treat their patients will also describe themselves as ‘holistic’.
In reality the genuine holistic practitioner doesn’t necessarily have to practise more than one medical discipline. A specialized heart surgeon can be a holistic practitioner just as easily as can a homoeopath. What is important is that the practitioner sees his patient as a whole human being, that he knows the limitations of the type of medicine he himself practises, that he is prepared to refer his patients to practitioners in other disciplines and, most important of all, that he is prepared to allow his patients to share in the responsibility for their own treatment.