MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

There are few concepts in medicine which are more often abused than that of ‘holistic medicine’. Professor Baum and many other well-reasoned observers have pointed out that true “holism in medicine is an open-ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has led to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer and that this approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. ‘Alternative’ versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny it in the field of scientific medicine.”

Holism does not belong to any type of health care, it is an essential characteristic of any type of good medicine; without it, health care is defective, almost by definition. This is not my personal opinion, it is and always has been the generally accepted view: it is a common misconception that holistic medicine is just ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine. Clinical holistic medicine actually dates as far back as Hippocrates. An holistic approach to patient care was also suggested by Percival in his book – the first textbook of medical ethics – first published in 1803. Percival stated: “The feeling and emotions of the patients require to be known and to be attended to, no less than the symptoms of their diseases.” More recently, John Macleod in his book ‘Clinical Examination’, first published in 1964, also commented that “we should aim to be holistic in our care”. Also, the seminal work by Michael Balint, ‘The Doctor, the Patient and his Illness’, first published in 1957, represents an important landmark in seeing the patient as a whole rather than as isolated pathology… An holistic approach is good practice and has been strongly advocated by the Royal College of General Practitioners for many years. 

Proponents of alternative medicine, however, tend to see this very differently. They have jumped on the ‘holistic band-wagon’ and frequently claim that they now own it: they pretend or imply to be the only clinicians who practice holistically. Thus a most effective straw man has been created, and conventional medicine is attacked by these ‘new-born holists’ for not being holistic.

One website may serve as an example for many: Holistic medicine (or holistic health) is a section of alternative medicine where practitioners believe that in order to successfully treat an illness or health problem, it is necessary to focus on the many components that make up an individual, including the mental and emotional aspects, rather than focusing exclusively on the physical symptoms or just the illness itself. Holistic medicine looks at the “whole package” in order to determine an appropriate path to healing.

More often than not, the ‘alternative path to healing’ turns out to consist of a series of bogus alternative treatments some of which may be directly harmful, while others are just useless but nevertheless detrimental because they replace effective therapies that would alleviate patients’ suffering.

In case you doubt this statement, I recommend searching the Internet for ‘holistic healing centres’. Just one website will have to stand for virtually thousands of others; this is the list of treatments offered in one UK holistic healing centre:

aromatherapy
bodytalk
bio resonance
bowen technique
clinical psychology
cognitive hypnotherapy
counselling
cranial osteopathy
crystal healing
deep tissue massage
dr hauschka rhythmic treatments
emotional freedom technique
food allergy testing
homeopathy
hypnotherapy
indian head massage
kinesiology
la stone massage therapy
metamorphic technique
mindfulness
naturopathy
neuro-linguisitc programming
nutritional therapy
osteopathy
pilates
pregnancy massage
psychotherapy
reflexology
reiki
remedial massage
shiatsu
sports therapy
swedish massage
yoga

I think it is important to realise what has happened here and what charlatans have made of holism which is (I repeat) a central and essential element of conventional health care. They have hijacked it, claimed they have a monopoly on it, used it to create a straw man misleading the public, and perverted it into a tool for attracting and financially exploiting the often all too gullible public.

And the reaction of conventional medicine to all this? Hardly any! Many conventional health care professionals seem now resigned to delegating holism to quacks. Some organisations, like the infamous COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, run by Prince Charles’ sycophants, have even taken an active role in supporting this shameful take-over.

I strongly feel that this regressive development will, in the end, render all of medicine less effective, less humane and will thus turn out to be a great disservice to patients.

3 Responses to Beware of the ‘new-born holists’

  • Holism is the consideration of all aspects of an organism or even an ecology. The difference between any medical/scientific use of the term and an alt medder is two fold. The former will take into account all aspects which are relevant to the studied characteristic. The latter takes everything, willy-nilly, and thus rejects reductionism. I am unaware of any advance in medicine or science that has been made purely from holism. When asked for such an example, altmedders will descend into hand waving po-mo gibberish.

    • All words in alternative reality medicine have alternative meanings. Even the word “alternative” – which when applied to them basically means “dishonest” to varying degrees.

      Judging by the number of alternative reality medical models and “therapies” to which the adjective “holistic” is individually applied by advocates, it’s clear that they have no clue as to the word’s real meaning, nor about the particular alternative reality “medicine” they advocate. When alternative reality “medicines” are actually described it becomes clear that they are the antithesis of holistic (even if any of these mutually exclusive and contradictory “therapies” could possibly work).

      What has always struck me as odd is how many alternative reality “medicine” prescriptions depend on the diagnoses of disease from real medicine (a model they universally despise and loudly denigrate, and with which their chosen alternative reality fundamentally disagrees). “Alternative” in this context is what the late Richard Feynman would have described as “Cargo Cult”.

      Btw. “Alt medders”? Shouldn’t that be “alt meddlers”? 🙂

  • Interesting: when I click the “generally accepted view” link, I am forwarded to an article in which I read: “Holistic medicine means consideration of the complete person, physically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually, in the management and prevention of disease.” In your article you state: “without it, health care is defective, almost by definition.” In main stream medicine nowadays this consideration for the complete person is clearly so often missing, I can only conclude that you feel our medical health care system is indeed defective’.

    Another quote from this “generally accepted view” article reads:
    “It is true that holistic medicine allows for a wider range of treatment approaches to be used together and encourages open-mindedness for these different approaches. Some of these approaches may include the use of complementary and alternative medicine but holistic medicine does not dismiss conventional medicine.” So good to learn you agree that this is the generally accepted view!

    To anyone who wants to know more about the value and meaning of holism, I can recommend reading Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness Of Nature: Goethe’s Way Of Science. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1420970.The_Wholeness_Of_Nature

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