The Philosophy of a Holistic Practice
The first confusion is what to actually call a practice which uses anything other than conventional, Western medicine. The buzz words are Holistic, Wholistic, Alternative, Complementary, Quackery…….None seem to fill the bill adequately. I personally like to refer to these modalities as the Traditional Healing Arts, as they by and large predate the mainstream approach to medicine. Since that is a very long a phrase, I will opt to use the word Holistic and you can substitute any word you deem more appropriate.
Conventional Allopathic Medicine vs. Holistic Medicine
Conventional allopathic medicine is defined as the medical approach of using medicines in opposition to symptoms of the diagnosis of the patient. It is grounded in Pasteur’s Germ Theory and is the predominant medicine in the Western world. This seems to me to be a very confrontational approach as it is designed to “fight disease”.
Holism is defined as a concept that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles (Merriam Webster). In medicine this translates into treating the patient as a fully integrated “whole” or totality living in and being influenced by both the internal and the external environment. For me it carries the connotation into medicine of nurturing health on a larger scale, rather than fighting disease.
Let us now compare and contrast these philosophies since one is well known to most of us by virtue of our cultural exposure to conventional medicine and the other is of interest as is seen by your visits to websites such as this one.
The Patient: Reductionism vs. Wholism and Vitalism
First, let us look at the scientific paradigm governing each medical philosophy and how these affect the respective appreciation of the patient.
Conventional medicine is reductionist in nature. Reductionist science and its attendant world view seek to break the subject up into smaller and smaller parts and to study these parts in more and more detail in isolation. This is the paradigm of science we were all taught in school thanks to the likes of Bacon, Newton, and Descartes and their Scientific Method. The thinking is that if we learn all there is to know about the disjointed parts, we will know all of the whole.
It is this medical philosophy which has given us the ever increasing levels of specialization seen in modern medicine.
A truly holistic practice is Wholism and Vitalist by nature. A Wholistic science is one which recognizes the interconnectedness and the interdependence of all nature. In medicine that translates into knowing that each and every part of the body influences every other part of the body and is in turn influenced by every other part. The body and all its parts are influenced by its environment and in turn influence that environment. Whatever affects the part affects the whole both on a local scale within the body and on a more global scale within the environment in general.
Vitalism respects and recognizes that intangible animating dynamis which separates the living from the dead. It is this dynamis, which is termed the Vital Force, Chi, the Innate, or Prana by various disciplines, which makes the living body susceptible and responsive. Without it the body is an inert collection of tissues and chemicals. Dis-ease begins at the level of this dynamis and is later manifest on the physical level. There is by virtue of this dynamis a metaphysical aspect to Holistic medicine.
No where in conventional medicine is there a place for the concept of this life force. The difference between living and dead in conventional medicine is the presence or absence of certain biochemical and physiological processes – processes randomly derived through the trial and error of the Cosmos.
Health and Disease: Event vs. Trend
Each of these philosophies leads us to a different appreciation of health and disease.
The Reductionist philosophy leads us to see disease as a discrete entity – an event with a defined beginning and end. The health of the patient is seen as a series of these unrelated events, much like snapshots in a photo album. Today we have an allergy patient, tomorrow a pneumonia patient, next week a diabetes patient and next year a cancer patient. Each diagnosis is discrete and not influenced by other events in the life of the patient.
In the Wholistic and Vitalist philosophy, health and disease are seen as a continuum of each other, blending and melding from one to the other but never being absolute, and extending to include the environs outside the physical body. The events of the past – the symptoms, their treatment, their resolution – influence the events of the future. The manipulation of one part at one time affects all the other parts in all times forward. The health status of the patient is the result of the health of the parental stock, the environmental effects on the patient, and the symptoms produced through time by the patient and their manipulation by therapeutic intervention. This view can be appreciated more as an interactive movie than as a photo album.
Treatment: Diagnosis vs. Patient
The real difference in these two medical philosophies comes when we decide what it is we are treating.
The outcome of Reductionist thinking in medicine is that our patient is reduced to a series of isolated and discrete diagnoses, each of which needs separate and distinct medical intervention. In conventional medicine, because of this Reductionist influence, we treat the diagnosis, not the patient. We analyze our patient by organ system/tissue, assign a diagnosis to our findings, then treat the mal-performing part. If we successfully make today’s symptoms of the diagnosis disappear, we have done our job properly, regardless of what follows in our patient in the coming days, weeks, months, or years.
In a Holistic practice we see our patient’s current health status as part of a continuum which begins before birth and ends in death, with each step along the way influencing what happens subsequently. Thus, rather than selectively suppressing or palliating a symptom, the aim is to elevate the health status so that not only are today’s symptoms addressed curatively, but we leave our patient healthier and more resilient for the days to come. If maladies are truly cured early in life, the patient will grow old gracefully and without the common degenerations we have come to call “normal” aging processes. (There is a great difference between “common” and “normal”.)
The Philosophy, not the Modality
With the above in mind, the nature of a veterinary or human medical practice is determined by the philosophical approach to the patient and to health/disease, and not by the treatment modality chosen by the doctor.
I have seen conscientious doctors who take time to learn their patient and the things that influence the health of that patient; who take into account the previous illnesses of the patient; who look at the diet, family dynamics, toxic exposures, and other external stressors; and who treat the patient as a whole integrated unit but who use antibiotics and steroids. I would consider these doctors to be holistic because of their approach to the health of their patients, even though they ultimately use conventional medicines in their patients.
I have also seen doctors who use a Homeopathic remedy, an herb, an acupuncture needle, or a chiropractic adjustment in a cookbook fashion based on the conventional diagnosis of the patient and directed in opposition of the symptoms of the patient. These doctors I do not consider to be holistic, even though they use modalities normally thought of as being “holistic”.
The difference is in the philosophical approach, not the modality chosen.