MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.
On ‘healthline’, I came across an article entitled ‘What Does a Holistic Doctor Do?‘ which I found intriguing. It explained to me the
Principles of holistic medicine 

Holistic medicine is based on several core values:

  • good health is a combination of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social wellness
  • prevention first, treatment second
  • disease is caused by a problem with the whole body, rather than a single event or body part
  • the goal of treatment is to fix the underlying cause of disease, instead of just improving the symptoms
  • treatment involves a wide range of options, including education, self-care, CAM, and traditional medicine
  • a person is not defined by their condition
  • the relationship between a doctor and the person being treated determines the treatment outcome
And after this overdose of misleading and somewhat annoying platitudes, the author addressed a question that I had been wondering about for years:
What does a holistic doctor do that a traditional doctor doesn’t?

Generally, traditional doctors treat symptoms. They provide medical solutions to alleviate a disease.

A holistic doctor treats the body as one. They aim to find the cause behind the disease, instead of just fixing the symptoms. This could require multiple therapies.

For example, if you have eczema, a medical doctor may give you a prescription cream. But a holistic doctor may suggest dietary and lifestyle changes. The holistic doctor might also recommend using the cream, plus natural home remedies like oatmeal baths.

So, now we know!

This could, of course, be just laughable if it were not perpetuating such common misconceptions. And as this sort of BS is so common, I feel obliged to carry on exposing it. Let me, therefore, correct the main errors in the short paragraph:

  1. ‘Traditional doctors’ are just doctors, proper doctors; holistic healers often give themselves the title ‘doctor’ but, unless they have been to medical school, they are not doctors.
  2. ‘Doctors treat symptoms’; yes, they do. But whenever possible, they treat the cause too. Therefore they do what is possible to identify the cause. And during the last 150 years or so, they have become reasonably good at this task.
  3. ‘A holistic doctor treats the body as one.’ That’s what they claim. But in reality, they are often not trained to do so. The body is mighty complex, and many holistic practitioners are simply not trained for coping with this complexity.
  4. ‘They aim to find the cause behind the disease’. They might well aim at that, but if they are not fully trained doctors, this is an impossible aim, and they merely end up finding what they have been taught about the cause of disease. An imbalance of Yin and Yang is the imagined cause of disease in TCM, and for many chiropractors, a subluxation is the cause of disease. But such assumptions are not facts; it is merely wishful thinking which get in the way of finding true causes of disease.
  5. Eczema happens to be a superb example (thank you ‘helpline’). The oatmeal bath of the holistic practitioner is at best a symptomatic treatment. This is why a proper doctor aims to find the cause of eczema which could be an allergy, for instance. Having identified it, the doctor would then advise how to avoid the allergen. If that is possible, further treatment might not be even necessary.

When practitioners are elaborating on their concept of holism, one often only needs to read on to find that those who pride themselves on holism are, in fact, the victims of multiple errors (or perhaps they use the holism gimmick only as a sales strategy, because consumers fall easily for this ‘bait and switch’). And those doctors who are accused of lacking holism are, in fact, more likely to be holistic than the so-called holists.

 

20 Responses to What does a holistic doctor do that a traditional doctor doesn’t?

  • I have always wondered how holistic/alternative/complementary/integrative practitioners claim to locate the ‘root cause’ of an ailment, and then proceed to treat ‘the whole body’ to fix the problem.

    But now we know, thanks to this excellent explanation: “disease is caused by a problem with the whole body, rather than a single event or body part”

    So no matter what, the root cause of an ailment is always ‘the whole body'(*), and thus the whole body is ‘treated’.
    And if subsequently the ailment goes away, the treatment has been effective!

    Now I wonder how these people would diagnose and treat e.g. an appendicitis …

    *: This somehow reminds me of the lame joke I used to make in my student days, when I repaired TV’s and computer screens etc. for fellow students:
    “OK, I looked at it, and I think I know why you have no picture.”
    “Ah, great, and why is that?”
    “It’s broken.”

    • Tommy Cooper to doctor:
      “I’ve got a pain in my arm.”
      Doctor: Have you had it before?”
      Cooper: “Yes.”
      Doctor: “Well – you’ve got it again!”

    • @Richard Rasker

      Say Richard

      In your statement, you flip from speaking to chronic problems, and then give an example of an acute problem….hmm.

      The statement;
      ““disease is caused by a problem with the whole body, rather than a single event or body part”
      I don’t care much for the statement . Various individual functions of the body can negatively effect others … yes we know and is obvious.

      I prefer to speak to dis-ease of the body from a different statement. I propose that disease of the body stems from the lack of something it needs more of, or stems from too much of something that is toxic. This is the cause of a large percentage of chronic disease. Heal the parts, you will have a better chance to heal the body.

      • “I prefer to speak to dis-ease of the body”
        Yes most chiros do – since their ueber-charlatan Palmer came up with the idea >100 years ago.

      • @Listener

        In your statement, you flip from speaking to chronic problems, and then give an example of an acute problem

        ?? I never mentioned the type of problem; you are the first to talk about chronic vs. acute problems here. Please do not put words in my mouth that I did not speak.

        The rest doesn’t make much sense, apart from your last sentence:

        Heal the parts, you will have a better chance to heal the body.

        Why yes, the body consists of different parts. So healing any dysfunctional parts helps healing the body as a whole. Well, that sounds easy … Until you get to the actual ‘healing’ part, which in my universe takes at least 10 years of studying and hard work before even being allowed to start healing people for real.

  • Well, this is interesting. I wonder what these ‘doctors’ are like at tough to treat people. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis many years ago and have been a wheelchair user since then. Neurologists and general practice are helpful but there is no cure. Maybe a holistic ‘doctor’ could treat my whole body to cure me…. or at least try over multiple appointments – and fees of course!

    The sad fact is that many of those who, like me, have no treatment options will go to these ‘doctors’ hoping for something ordinary medicine cannot treat – and will pay a lot of money for, effectively nothing.

    • yes, it makes me sad [and angry at the same time and measure]

    • Yes, however one thing that can be an outcome of alternative therapies is a concept that even CON-Med supports…. “help the body to heal itself”.
      I have learned ways to help myself via means that CON-Med does not support because it/they haven’t been “proven” by science to benefit more than 50% of patients in tests.
      What about the percent of patients that it did benefit ? CON-Med doesn’t benefit everybody equally either, even those therapies that were proven to benefit enough to be approved.

      • “help the body to heal itself”
        THAT’S A PLATITUDE WITHOUT REAL MEANING
        “50% of patients in tests”
        THAT’S JUST WRONG.

        • @EE

          The US FDA rarely approves therapies with less than 50% success. Usually the exception is for disease with previously unmet needs.

          Help the body to heal itself ?
          Wrong Edzard, when Oncologist give cancer treatments, are they working with or against the patients body ?
          Even CON-Med believes in helping the body to heal itself. Our human bodies can do infinitely more on their own than we can do to help, yet we can lend assistance.

          An obese persons reduction in calories is a simple example of helping the body to heal itself.

          • “when Oncologist give cancer treatments, are they working with or against the patients body ?”
            They are trying to get rid of the cancer cells so that the body can heal itself!

          • Listener,

            when Oncologist give cancer treatments, are they working with or against the patients body ?

            Always with.

            A doctor working against their patient’s body is unlikely to have much success. Treatments work best if they harness the body’s own mechanisms and it is important, therefore, for a doctor to have a detailed understanding of them. Five years of medical school is a start, but many more years of training and experience are required before a doctor is allowed to be in charge of somebody’s treatment (at least in the UK), and they need to keep up with ongoing research as our understanding is necessarily incomplete.

            Our human bodies can do infinitely more on their own than we can do to help, yet we can lend assistance.

            Yes. Every doctor knows this.

            I assume that you are using “infinitely” in a rhetorical sense; scientists try to pin down estimates to a range, even when the numbers are very large.

            I have learned ways to help myself via means that CON-Med does not support because it/they haven’t been “proven” by science to benefit more than 50% of patients in tests.

            I have no idea where you got that figure, or even what you mean by that. Generally what is relevant is the balance between benefit and risk, whether the treatment is actually useful, and how much it costs.

            Dexamethasone, for example, reduces death from Covid-19 in about a third of critically ill patients requiring ventilation, but it is now standard treatment.

            Another example is adjuvant chemotherapy (i.e. treatment given to prevent a cancer returning after primary treatment such as surgery) which generally helps 5 – 10% of the patients who receive it. This is because most of them have already been cured and we don’t know which are the ones in whom the cancer is going to recur. However, since it is lifesaving in the ones that it does help, affording many additional years of life, nearly everyone chooses to have it rather than take the risk of an avoidable death. A large focus of cancer research is aimed at finding ways to identify those that will or will now benefit from adjuvant treatment, and to match the treatment to the individual, in order to reduce the number who are treated unnecessarily.

  • On Bullet Point 3 “Disease is caused by a problem with the whole body rather than a single event or body part”, I am reminded of an excellent The Two Ronnies sketch which I can’t find on YouTube. There is of course the superb Homeopathic ER sketch by Mitchell & Webb, not to be overlooked, on YouTube.

    But in the sketch from The Two Ronnies, Ronnie Corbett is a ‘holistic’ practitioner, and Ronnie Barker comes in to see him, with a hatchet embedded in the middle of his forehead. Corbett proceeds to consult astrology charts etc.

  • One word answer: “Exaggerate.”
    Three word answer: “Make false claims.”
    Seven word answer:”Take advantage of vulnerable and gullible patients.”

  • It has long seemed to me that (at least in the UK which is those only country whose health system I’ve much experience of) General Practitioners practice truly holistic medicine, caring for the whole patient, including lifestyle factors and physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

    As anecdotal evidence, I proffer from many years ago the experience of my late mother. Consulting the local GP practice about a genuine physical health problem, the GP took the time to enquire into various life aspects. It was a potentially transitional time for my Mum, with me having grown up and left school, and she was considering what to do about re-entering the workforce.

    The GP suggested that she could try a new education initiative at the time – a TOPPS course (Training Opportunities). Mum had a clerical background, having been a shorthand typist for a lawyers firm. She enrolled on a clerical refresher course in the further education college here, enjoyed it, and successfully completed it.

    Having enjoyed college, she decided to go back, and she enrolled for, and passed, three “Highers” (Scottish qualifications a little lower than A-Levels) at the age of 53. She then applied to and was accepted for, an MA Degree course at Glasgow University (one of the ‘ancient universities’).

    Subsequent health problems unfortunately prevented her from completing the degree. But that holistic approach taken by a conscientious GP started her on a new and fulfilling road, from which she got much intellectual enjoyment and self-esteem.

    This is not to say, of course, that within the pressures of Britain’s National Health Service, all GPs at all times manage to practice a fully holistic and patient-centred approach. But, by and large, in my opinion, and in comparison to ‘alternative’ practitioners, they do.

    Parenthetically, and without wishing to drag this Thread off-topic, I want to stress the importance of Further Education provision to the wellbeing of society as a whole. Starve that sector, and you remove rungs from an important ladder. Stephen Fry and Frank Skinner, in their autobiographies, acknowledge the crucial role that Further Education Colleges played in their lives.

    • We often say “AN ANECDOTE IS NOT EVIDENCE!”

      But is this an anecdote which is evidence? I think it is. David makes no huge claims of the “It worked for me” variety, but tells us about a good GP who worked truly holistically. And it’s a lovely tale. Thank you for sharing it, David.

  • what always gets me is that this is particularly the case with homeopathy.

    they always rant on about how they treat “the whole patient” and how they ” treat the underlying cause, not the symptoms like allopathic doctors” – but then they have so actual medical system at all. So all they do treat is SYMPTOMS.

    Their whole approach is about eliciting symptoms and about treating each one as a separate entity. They don’t think in terms of someone having a collection of complaints that adds up to a “diagnosis” – they just treat a smattering of “symptoms.”

  • Come to think of it, this one’s pretty hilarious as well, given that many holistic practitioners have anti-vaccine sentiments.:

    * prevention first, treatment second

  • I find it appropriate, but also disingenuous, that Healthline’s medical reviewer for that article is not a medical doctor. I guess Healthline’s reason for having their articles “medically reviewed” is simply to make them sound more trustworthy than they are.

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