The Truth about Holistic Medicine
Dr Vernon Coleman
Holistic medicine means treating the patient in whatever way will produce effective, safe results. It means combining orthodox and alternative medicine.
The word ‘holistic’ was first introduced in 1926 by the South African philosopher and statesman Jan Christian Smuts. He suggested that the whole human being is much more than (and quite different to) a collection of physical or emotional parts. Back in those dark days there were doctors parading up and down hospital wards referring to the ‘liver’ in the end bed and the ‘case of pancreatitis’ in the third bed on the left. What am I talking about? There still are.
But whatever they may claim there are virtually no ‘holistic’ hospitals around. And there are no holistic healers. If you want holistic medicine then you must become a holistic patient. The problem is that an intuitive, holistic approach goes against everything with which the bureaucratic, legalistic, constrained medical establishment feels comfortable. The medical establishment was bought by the drug industry decades ago. Modern medicine is geared to solving problems with drugs, surgery or radiotherapy and does not acknowledge the influence of stress or diet. Nor does the medical establishment appreciate the importance of preventive medicine.
The myth that drug therapy offers the only true solution is now repeated unquestioningly and without hesitation or embarrassment. Many members of the medical establishment believe that medical advances largely depend upon the pharmaceutical industry. This is not regarded as a subject for debate but as a fundamental building block; a fact of medical life.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the drug company owned and controlled medical establishment still looks with horror at all varieties of alternative medicine. Attempts to organise research programmes into the effectiveness of acupuncture, herbalism or homoeopathy are invariably treated with a sneer or a patronising dismissal.
It is one of the great scandals of the 21st century that the billion dollar worldwide cancer industry, the international drug industry and the medical ‘profession’ (now, more of a trade than a ‘profession’) would all much rather suppress an alternative cancer treatment rather than have to admit that orthodox remedies might be bettered.
Doctors pay lip service to holistic medicine but what they really mean is that patients should be prepared to try a wide variety of drugs and orthodox medical treatments. Hospital specialists have drifted into intellectual parochialism. Most now specialise and then specialise again. They are absurdly narrow-minded and bigoted; there is no integration, no overview and no common sense.
‘Holistic’ (or, as it sometimes spelt, wholistic) medicine has, for several decades, been growing in theoretical popularity. Many alternative and some orthodox health care professionals describe themselves as ‘holistic’ practitioners. But most aren’t. Most journalists inaccurately assume that the word is a synonym for ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine. But that is wrong too.
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 who felt that aggressive, interventionist medicine wasn’t entirely satisfactory.
Suddenly there was a widespread, sensible feeling that specialisation and fragmentation were not all they had been cracked up to be.
In practical terms the use of the word ‘holistic’ meant, in theory at least, that instead of regarding patients as sick kidneys or hearts, health care professionals would try to meet the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of their patients by dealing with social problems as well as physical ones and by using natural healing methods as well as modern, pharmacological or surgical techniques.
In short, the word ‘holistic’ was intended to describe an attitude. An attitude which can be just as well followed by an orthodox trained doctor as by an alternative practitioner. A general practitioner in a busy city health centre can be ‘holistic’ in his approach just as easily as can a herbalist or acupuncturist working from a back bedroom.
There is no doubt that a truly ‘holistic’ approach to medical care is extremely good news for patients.
When followed properly it means that every illness can be treated with a ‘pick and mix’ approach – choosing whichever aspects of orthodox and alternative medicine are most likely to be effective, and least likely to produce side effects, and treating and taking full notice of all aspects of the individual’s being.
It is a fact that in most illnesses there is no point in treating what is wrong with the body unless you also treat what is wrong with the mind and it seems to me remarkable that a modern doctor will treat the body of a patient who is suffering from high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome or asthma but ignore the mind, when it is now established beyond doubt that in so many illnesses the physical symptoms are produced by mental turmoil of one sort or another.
It is equally bizarre and, in truth, unscientific, for an osteopath to treat a patient’s back and ignore his mind.
The advantages of a truly ‘holistic’ approach are colossal not only because ‘holistic’ medicine offers a chance to use the best and avoid the worst but also because different types of treatment can, when used together, have a synergistic effect. A genuinely ‘holistic’ approach may use a modern drug, a relaxation technique and a type of massage to tackle a single collection of symptoms.
But although in theory the word ‘holistic’ implies an admirable change in attitude there is, sadly, little evidence that practitioners really understand what the word means or how it should be applied in practice.
It would be nice to think that everyone could find a ‘holistic’ practitioner to look after them. But don’t hold your breath. You’ve about as much chance of striking oil when digging in your winter vegetables.
The bottom line is that I don’t think that many patients are ever going to receive truly ‘holistic’ treatment from their practitioners. Most training programmes are, by their very nature, designed to produce specialists. Medical schools turn out drug dispensers and cutters. And there aren’t many health care professionals with the time or inclination to study other available specialities.
We must also recognise that there is, of course, a huge financial disincentive involved here. How many practitioners are going to suggest to a paying patient that he would obtain better treatment by visiting another professional?
All this is enormously depressing.
But it doesn’t mean that ‘holistic’ medicine is out of reach. What it does mean is that if you really want ‘holistic’ treatment (and in my opinion you should) you’re going to have to take control yourself if you or anyone in your family needs treatment.
Devise your own ‘pick and mix’ approach.
It really is the only sensible way.
Taken from `The Kick-Ass A-Z for Over 60s’ by Vernon Coleman
Copyright Vernon Coleman August 2023