One of the most common claims of alternative practitioners is that they take a holistic approach to health care. And it is this claim which attracts many consumers. It also makes conventional medicine look bad, reductionist and inhuman, as it implies that mainstream medicine is non-holistic.
The claim can be easily disclosed to be a straw man, because all good medicine was, is and always will be holistic. Moreover, the claim amounts to a falsehood, because much of alternative medicine is everything but holistic. I will try to explain what I mean using the recent example of acupuncture for neck pain, but I could have used almost any other alternative treatment and any other human complaint/condition/disease:
- chiropractic for back pain;
- homeopathy for asthma;
- energy healing for depression;
- aromatherapy for jet lag;
- etc. etc.
The recent trial found that adding acupuncture to usual care yields a slightly better outcome than usual care alone. This is hardly a big deal; adding a good cup of tea and a compassionate chat to usual care might have done a similar thing. Acupuncturists, however, will say that their holistic approach is successful.
How holistic is acupuncture?
A ‘Western’ acupuncturist would normally ask what is wrong with the patient; in the case of neck pain, he would probably ask several further questions about the history of the condition, when the pain occurs, what aggravates it etc. Then he might conduct a physical examination of his patient. Eventually, he would get out his needles and start the treatment.
A ‘traditional’ acupuncturist would ask similar questions, feel the pulse, look at the tongue and make a diagnosis in terms of yin and yang imbalance. Eventually, he too would get out his needles and start the treatment.
Is that holistic?
Certainly not! If we look at alternative practitioners in general, we cannot fail to notice that they tend to be the very opposite of holistic. They usually attribute a patients illness to one single cause such as yin/yang imbalance (acupuncture), subluxation (chiropractic), impediment of the life force (homeopathy), etc.
Holistic means that the patient is understood as a whole person. Our neck pain patient might have physical problems such as muscular tension; the acupuncturists might well have realised this and placed their needles accordingly. But neck pain, like most other symptoms, can have many other dimensions:
- there could be stress;
- there could be an ergonomically disadvantageous work place;
- there could be a history of injury;
- there could be a malformation of the spine;
- there could be a tumour;
- there could be an inflammation;
- there could be many other specific diseases;
- there could be relationship problems, et. etc.
Of course, the acupuncturists will claim that, during an acupuncture session, they will pick up on all of these. However, in my experience, this is little more than wishful thinking. And even if they did pick up other dimensions of the patient’s complaint, what can they do about it? They can (and often do) give rather amateur advice. This may be meant most kindly but it is rarely optimal.
And what about conventional practitioners, aren’t they even worse?
True, there often is far too much room for improvement. But at least the concept of multifactorial conditions and treatments is deeply ingrained in everyone who has been to medical school. We learn that symptoms/complaints/conditions/diseases are almost invariably multifactorial; they have many causes and contributing factors which can interact in complex ways. Therefore, responsible physicians always consider to treat patients in multifactorial ways; in the case of our neck pain patient:
- the stress might need a relaxation programme,
- the work place might need the input of an occupational therapist;
- in case of an old injury, a physio might be needed;
- specific conditions might need to be seen by a range of medical specialists;
- muscular tension could be reduced by a massage therapist;
- relationship problems might require the help of a psychologist; etc. etc.
I am NOT saying that all of this is necessary in each and every case. But I am saying that, in conventional medicine, both the awareness and the possibility for a professional multidisciplinary approach is well established. You don’t believe me? Ask a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist who refers more patients to them, an acupuncturist or a GP!
Alternative practitioners claim to be holistic and some might even be aware of the complexity of their patients’ symptoms. But, at best, they have an amateur approach to this complexity by dabbling themselves in issuing more or less suited advice. They are not adequately trained to do this job, and they refer very rarely.
My conclusion: professional multidiscipinarity is an approach deeply engrained in conventional medicine (we don’t often call it holism, perhaps because many doctors associate this term with charlatans), and it beats the mostly amateurish pseudo-holism of alternative practitioners any time.