What Is Holistic Medicine?

In recent years, holistic medicine has attracted more and more practitioners and adherents. But, what is holistic medicine? How does it differ from conventional medicine? In many ways, the answers to such questions are straightforward. Unlike conventional medicine, holistic medicine is an approach to health and healing that takes into account the whole person. Consistent with a broader, more general holistic perspective, this approach views the person as a dynamic interaction between body, mind, and spirit. Disease is seen as arising from an imbalance among these factors in conjunction with lifestyle and environmental circumstances.

Practitioners of holistic medicine are trained first in the art and science of conventional medicine. They understand and appreciate the fact that conventional, Western-style medicine is highly effective in treating acute, life threatening illnesses and injuries. But, they argue that conventional medicine may not be the best choice for many of the chronic conditions commonly encountered in their practices.

For practitioners of holistic medicine, it is not enough to treat the symptoms of a disease. A patient must be seen as an individual with unique healing needs -- needs that may not be met adequately by a simple application of conventional medicine. Thus, practitioners of holistic medicine are likely to spend a great deal of time identifying the particular combination of physical, psychological, spiritual, and lifestyle factors that contribute to illness in the individual patient. In an effort to bring these factors into balance and to promote natural healing processes, holistic physicians are open to the use of safe, effective treatment alternatives derived from a variety of healing traditions. It is not unusual for holistic physicians to complete additional training in such disciplines as herbalism, naturopathy, meditation, and biofeedback, to name a few. At the same time, practitioners of holistic medicine are likely to have a broader perspective on the prevention of health-related problems than do traditional physicians.

Of course, physicians of every stripe are dedicated to disease prevention. Practitioners of conventional medicine tend to emphasize the development and use of vaccines along with environmental actions designed to prevent the spread of infectious disease agents. Physicians who practice holistic medicine go beyond these traditional preventative measures. Holistic physicians emphasize the importance of health maintenance in the individual person. They realize that factors such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and mental and physical stress can reduce general level of health. Furthermore, they argue that when an individual's overall level of health is reduced, natural healing processes cannot function adequately and the person is at greater risk for developing various chronic diseases and disorders. Hence, the holistic physician is likely to encourage a range of patient behaviors designed to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system.

From the perspective of holistic medicine, responsibility for health rests ultimately with the individual patient. For this reason, it is important for physician and patient to work together in real partnership. To do so, the holistic physician must share more information and insights than may be typical among non-holistic practitioners. It is this sharing of information that allows the physician and patient to work cooperatively to design a program of treatment that is effective and with which the patient is comfortable. As might be expected, such a partnership between physician and patient is most likely to succeed when the physician actively models a healthy lifestyle and shows unconditional regard for the patient.

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