In 1993 the American medical profession got a wake up call. This resulted from publication of research in the New England Journal of Medicine that indicated about $10 billion was spent each year out of pocket on alternative treatments. At that time, 1 in 3 people was routinely seeing an alternative practitioner, which meant visits to alternative healers outnumbered visits to conventional doctors. As these figures continue to rise, the medical community has responded accordingly.
Now, over 50 medical schools supplement their conventional curriculum with homeopathy, acupuncture, meditation, and prayer. And a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health has recommended that all medical and nursing students be exposed to alternative theories and techniques. With iatrogenesis (unintended physician induced complications) being the third leading cause of death in the US, this change is coming none too soon. But what is alternative medicine and how different is it?
The term “complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)” is used to describe a growing number of practices that are gaining legitimacy due to their healing capacities. Since the terms “alternative” and “complementary” can sound demeaning, as if to suggest there is “real” medicine and then something less, other terms include “integrative medicine” or “holistic health care.” For this article, I will be using the term “holistic health” because I believe it more accurately reflects the underlying principles of the approach. Since many articles have been devoted to the valuable contributions of Western medicine, or allopathy, as it is sometimes called, I will be focusing this article mostly on the contributions of holistic health.
The first contribution of holistic health is that subtle energy (the animating principle, vital force, etheric body, or mana, as the Hawaiians call it) is a key component in healing. The presence of this and other energies in correct proportions is understood to be essential to health. Healing systems in indigenous cultures have long embraced the importance of subtle energies. Chinese medicine and ayurveda (the Hindu science of life) are the two most prominent examples. Many holistic health practitioners, such as acupuncturists, kinesiologists, Reiki practitioners, homeopaths, and naturopaths, work directly with the body’s subtle energies to restore health and balance.
This is in contrast to allopathy which historically denies the existence of subtle energies, focusing exclusively on the physical, material aspects of the body. Considering that much of allopathy was developed through dissecting cadavers, it is understandable that the presence of vital energy was overlooked.
A second contribution is that holistic health values the subjective experience of the whole person. Holistic health practitioners are interested in the personal experience of their clients and clients are seen as experts on their own health. The most valuable information regarding treatment comes from inside the person. Practitioners are interested in the “internal conditions” of a person, as well as their “external symptoms.” The health of the whole person–physical, energetic, emotional, psychological, social, environmental, spiritual–is considered when devising a treatment.
Allopathy, in contrast, is concerned mostly with objective measure and pathology. The ailment is the main focus and the part of the body in which the ailment is located is of primary importance. Thus, the medical profession promotes specialization which has a compartmentalizing effect (i.e., cardiology focuses on the heart, ophthalmology focuses on the eyes, podiatry focuses on the feet, etc.). The body is examined from an external, objective perspective. Tests are run, medicines prescribed, and surgeries done with the most valuable information regarding treatment coming from medical professionals who are expected to be experts on other people’s health.
A third contribution is that holistic health honors the uniqueness of each individual, realizing there are many factors that affect health and many ways to heal. Because holistic health modalities are responsive to the unique needs of each individual, treatments vary from person to person, despite similar symptoms. From the perspective of holistic health, other approaches-including allopathy–are valued and often encouraged.
Allopathy, on the other hand, advocates classifying symptoms into disease categories and devising uniform treatments. Patients who display similar symptoms are given the same treatment. Further, a treatment is deemed successful to the extent that it applies to the most symptoms and the most people. Rather than embracing other approaches, allopathy is seen as the best, and often the only, way to treat an illness.
Finally, the major contribution of holistic health lies in the understanding of health itself. In the allopathic approach, health is the absence of disease or illness. From the perspective of holistic health, health derives from the word “wholeness” and includes all dimensions of a person. It is a continuum of limitless potential. Thus, health is a progressive state of integration, potentially leading to self-actualization. And that’s wholly healing.
Published in the Maui News, July 16, 2001