I was at a panel discussion last week about public relations with media representatives who cover healthcare. One covered healthcare topics on radio, another on T.V. and another in the newpaper. One topic discussed was their reluctance to cover “holisitic health,” because, they said, it often couldn’t be shown to be evidence-based. I had many reactions.
First, what a tragedy it is that “holistic” has often been become more associated with quackery than with a legitimate and important approaches to healthcare. Mostly, I think, certain “new-age” professionals are to blame for this. Holistic means taking the perspective of the whole person, understanding the individualized approach to take for a person to become fully well, not just, for instance, to being treated for a disease. When I first became involved seriously in “alternative health”, it primarily emphasized diet, exercise, relaxation, and political activism to support healthier lifestyles and a more health-promoting world. Now if you look at most new-agey magazines, they are filled with articles and ads for becoming a life-coach in one weekend (only $595!); various brands of energy healing through crystals, herbs, dubious vitamin formulas, affirmations, astrology, on and on. In other worlds, “holistic” has become, to some extent, a refuge for unproven, wishful thinking, and various other remedies, ranging from innocuous to out-and-out quackery. What a shame!
The true perspective of holism is to view the person, and the world they live in, as a whole. So-called “health-care” (read what some people call “allopathy”) is often not health-care, it is disease-care. Now, to be clear, more power to good disease-care. Many of us, including myself, would not be alive if it weren’t for the incredible diagnostic skills and treatments practiced by modern allopathic medicine.
But holistic healthcare (I still prefer the earlier spelling “wholisitic”) at its best helps the person get from being sick to being normal and also, at its best, helps the person get from being just normal, that is, disease-free, to being optimally well. It is this latter realm that is so important and unique to genuine wholism. That is what health-care at its best is – the individual and social commitment to being truly well – not just un-sick.
Part of becoming truly well, then is not particularly the consumption of alternative or modern pharmaceutical remedies, but an approach to life that is truly fulfilling. This may include competent delivery of services such as health education, counseling, art therapy, exercise coaching for optimally benefit, mindfulness, meditation, acupuncture, various forms of massage therapy, and more. Some of these approaches are evidence-based. It is legitimate to call for evidence when available or appropriate.
Other forms and aspects of healthcare are in some ways as much art as science. A great psychotherapist for instance is someone who is extremely creative in finding ways to illuminate their clients. A great massage therapist will be someone whose touch sensitivities reflect a genuine understanding not only of anatomy but of the individual person and the way touch may resolve individualized tensions of life as manifest in the muscles, joints and nervous system. A wonderful nurse is someone who in her caring and respectful treatment of her patients heals as much through quality of care as through the medical remedy itself. A great health educator will have the ability to connect remarkably with his/her students.
Now it is entirely sensible to insist that science be evidence-based. But in so far as we are dealing with art as well as the science of healthy living and in so far as healthcare is a practiced art and science, calling for all healthcare to be evidence-based is like asking that all art be evidence-based. That is not a reasonable or even sensible criterion. Art is not evidence-based. Humans are not intelligent only via the left-side of the cerebrum. Beethoven’s 9th is a transformational experience. Great works, whether in healthcare or art, are not necessarily reproducible. They don’t yield to research. You don’t need a control group to know that there is an art to living well. And along the path of optimized wellness are revelations and experiences whose timing and content were inherently unpredictable, probably non-reproducible, but life-changing nonetheless.
So let us beware of an overly narrow vision of life and health. The most effective approach to healthcare will take the whole person into account. It will ideally come up with individualized solutions that support the addressing of the cause of the disease, its symptoms, and specific recommendations for not just overcoming disease, but for leading a truly healthy life mentally, emotionally and physically.
At the same time, for holistic professionals, such as myself, it is high time to make distinctions between health approaches that are grounded in research; other traditional approaches which may not be; and other approaches which have been shown by science to be based in falsity, or forms that seem to exploit people’s desire for alternatives by offering solutions that border on or are certainly quackery. People can choose to believe in things that are false or unproven. But the holistic field needs to recognize again the real value of wholeness and not let its credibility be destroyed by what are less effective or blatantly ineffective substitutes for pharmaceuticals.
People, myself included, often like the simplicity of taking a pill. Sometimes it is the very best solution to a heath problem. However, so often the pill doesn’t address the lifestyle that gave rise to complaint. Ultimately healthcare needs to look at life choices that can give rise to the adverse conditions. Ultimately, we need to look at the overall health of our society and support preventative solutions. Many of these are embodied by holistic healthcare at its best. Because holistic doesn’t really refer just to my health or yours. Holistic by definition looks at the whole. Ultimately we all create our environment together. That affects every one of us. A few years ago, a scholar, Samuel S. Epstein, published a book “The Politics of Cancer” in which he showed in so many cases the cure is already known! It is to clean up the carcinogens being using world-wide. “Researchers have estimated that as many as 2 in 3 cases of cancer (67%) are linked to some type of environmental factor” (National Cancer Institute). Now this book, researchers, and their vital conclusions are largely buried with people hoping for after-the-fact responses with pills, chemicals and surgery.
But let us be clear. Holism is simply the correct approach to health.
The cure for so much illness in our world is an appropriate combination of disease-care and health-care applied to both the individuals and to our world. This is the vast importance of holism. We should prevent the social tragedy of holism being on the one hand discounted by the overly narrow-minded as well as co-opted by certain people who promote false solutions to people’s problems.
Holism presents us with an explicit model for a healthy world. This is the vision of a peaceful world in which people are equipped by the educational and healthcare systems to lead optimized lives. Healthy iives are lived with the whole in mind, so we do not see health as an individual property, but as the work of each one of us for our own sake and for the sake of the world we live in. The work of creating this world is viewed as almost utopian, given the many obstacles humanity puts in our own way. But health means whole and if there is anything worth working hard to achieve it is the health of this whole earth and everyone in it.