Alternative Medicine: Or Striving for Whole Person Care?

Not a day passes without hearing about a new breakthrough in alternative medicine. Referring to a wide variety of natural approaches and treatments, the concept covers vast territory.

The term, “alternative medicine” seems to have emerged out of dissatisfaction with contemporary healthcare. Frankly I’m not surprised. There’s no doubt our present medical system needs work.

Alternative medicine practitioners (professional and non-professional) from various backgrounds cite the obvious shortcomings of conventional medicine, and suggest prevention strategies or treatment options through either natural means or via approaches for which there appears to be little scientific evidence.
They strongly contend their approaches work, yet little is offered in the way of proof. However, one should realize that lack of evidence is not always based upon limited experience. To the contrary, many alternative healthcare providers have cared for literally thousands of patients. Unfortunately, most have avoided basic research initiatives, or have failed to maintain even minimal records for later analysis. While it would be unfair to stereotype the group as a whole, it is not uncommon to hear the argument, “experience is all that matters.”

Often lacking professional education or credentials, they further widen the gap between themselves and traditional practitioners by proposing mechanistic explanations inconsistent with the foundations of scientific understanding. As an example, loose buzz words and claims such as “immune system enhancing” are meaningless without detailed explanation. Failure to respond to repeated calls for substantiation in the language of science further alienates the alternative providers from conventional medicine practitioners. To complicate matters further, the alternative field loosely encompasses well-meaning professionals as well as charlatans backed by nothing more than tremendous marketing hype.

The overall problem however is not as straight-forward as it appears. The conventional medical establishment has a lot to learn as well. Instead of maintaining the stance as a close-minded system, it must offer opportunities for healthier dialogues needed to advance healthcare as a whole.

Yet beyond this great disparity of approaches, understanding and credentials, a more troublesome issue exists. Frankly, I do not understand why we need alternative medicine in the first place!

My stance may be surprising, yet I strongly support the notion we do not need two separate systems of healthcare. While conventional medicine is no doubt incomplete, why set forth to resolve the problem by throwing the baby (conventional medicine) out with the bath water by choosing an alternative?
Improving upon and expanding conventional healthcare is obviously what’s needed. To provide 2 choices: conventional vs. alternative is bound to prevent people in need from receiving potentially life-saving care and treatments based upon the best medical science has to offer. In a similar manner, improving patient care requires more than just medication and surgery.

As a compromise, the middle-of-the-roaders call their approach “complementary medicine,” another term we could very well live without. “Complementary” implies supportive of conventional medicine. It also suggests an “add-on” that enhances the REAL approach. Yet when one explores the approach closely, it is often used in reference to well-established, proven health-promoting strategies including nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, social support and spirituality.

Are these not the most basic foundations of a healthy life?

How can we as a society even contemplate separating these issues from any responsible comprehensive healthcare system?

Undeniably…we can’t.

This assertion takes us back to where we began – the limitations of our current healthcare system. With a rational starting point of promoting health rather than just treating disease, we have the impetus for creating what I refer to as “whole person medicine” a responsible interdisciplinary healthcare option for the future. It is a synergistic approach— one that blends the best of conventional medicine with evidence-based strategies from a variety of perspectives that promote well-being and aid in the process of maintaining or reestablishing the gift of a healthy life.

Most importantly, whole person care emphasizes the individual at the center of the healing process. Not limited to the latest herb, supplement, drug, procedure, or for that matter any particular perspective exclusively, it focuses on encouraging healthy lifestyle choices in the context of receiving the best open-minded, evidence-based, patient-centered care possible.

Whole person medicine emphasizes incorporating the humanistic elements we need for responsibly taking an active role in our own healthcare. A practical approach, it is established along a wellness-illness continuum delivered with caring, compassion and respect for the individual needs of each person.

This is the essence of what mind-body-spirit medicine can be if both sides work together. A meeting of the minds, whole person medicine stimulates the need for practitioners to work as a team for the development of an understandable and meaningful dialogue that has great potential for making all the difference in the future of healthcare – Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Barry Bittman MD Written by Barry Bittman MD

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