Monday, May 25, 2009

What is holistic medicine anyway?

Ask some people, and they confidently define holistic medicine as use of natural remedies. Others would suggest that it is the studious avoidance of conventional medicine. Professionals who don't bother to read before they use the language of another discipline believe it is synonymous with homeopathy.

Holistic medicine has been defined in alot of different ways:

Princeton word database: medical care of the whole person considered as subject to personal and social as well as organic factors; "holistic medicine treats the mind as well as the body" Alternative Health Glossary (this is the business website of a reflexologist): Sometimes called alternative medicine or natural medicine, this type of health care involves a whole mind-body approach to health emphasizing preventive medicine and often effective at relieving chronic conditions like recurrent colds, headaches, arthritis and even cancer.

From Missouri's Dept of Health and Senior Services: An approach to medical care that emphasizes the study of all aspects of a person's health, including physical, psychological, social, economic, and cultural factors.

The Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association had a discussion on their email list in 2004, and decided that a good definition was: "Holistic veterinarians are those who offer all therapies (both conventional and alternative) which are potentially safe and effective, assess and treat the whole patient's lifestyle, genetics, environment, and history, provide long term relief where possible, and who spend sufficient time educating clients so that animal owners are satisfied that they understand their animal's condition, prognosis and treatment plan."

On occasion I have discussions with new clients (and sometimes immediately ex-clients) who prefer their own definitions of holistic medicine. This usually means that they define holistic medicine as [usually] homeopathy, adherence to the single right way to feed your pet (note my inability to remove tongue from cheek) and strict avoidance of vaccines and drugs.

So where do people get these ideas that holistic medicine is so narrow in scope? Do they really believe that after all of these centuries, their chosen therapies have suddenly become more effective than they once were?


  1. Oh, there is so much here to discuss. But I'll try to stay on topic.

    Personally, I hate the term holistic. It's a fraudulent term in my opinion. The use of this term is an attempt to introduce a false dichotomy; that of the 'holistic' practitioner (with the subtext that this is somehow better) versus the 'traditional' practitioner (with the subtext that this is somehow worse). This term (and others like CAM, integrative, etc) is used to appeal to those who are dissatisfied with 'traditional' medicine, and those who are just naturally attracted to the 'alternative' lifestyle.

    I'm not the first to say this, but the bottom line is: if it works, it's medicine. If it doesn't, it's quakery. All good clinicians acknowledge the role of nutrition, social factors, stress, exercise, etc. on the overall well-being of the animal. To call oneself a 'holistic' veterinarian is a slap in the face of all other (good)clinicians, whether you intend for it to be or not. Sure, there are 'traditional' quacks out there as well. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us don't practice a 'holistic' approach. We just don't cloak ourselves in a false mantle of piety.

    Posted with all due respect, Dr. Wynn. I appreciate the science based perspective you bring to the table, and your appropriate criticism of faith-based treatments. I don't intend this to be a personal attack, but a reproach of the entire CAM movement. Reasonable people can always disagree.

  2. First, your arguments would have more credibility if you actually used a real name :-)

    At any rate, we will certainly disagree that the entire CAM movement is fraudulent or composed of insincere quacks who prefer the alternative lifestyle. It's a cultural shift recognizing other ways of discovering truth about our health and disease-care, usually (at least initially) by people who were failed by conventional medicine.

    That said, I agree that the word holistic can be applied to any good clinician. But my point was that many pet owners have co-opted the word to believe something narrow and exclusive, and I have a visceral, sickening reaction to that. As you apparently do as well.