Treating the Whole Person

Today’s blog is about differences in the way physicians recognize and respond to the physical and spiritual dimensions of their patients.

What is holistic medicine?

Holistic medicine is the practice of medicine that seeks to treat the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. Some characteristics include:

  1. Emphasis on wellness; not only pursuing eradication of disease.
  2. Considers the patient’s attitudes and behaviors as integral to successful treatment. For example, humor, hope, and love are better for us than harboring anger, bitterness, or grief.
  3. Emphasizes the prevention of disease.
  4. Sees disease as a result of imbalance or dysfunction of the whole person and not just isolated to a single organ or agent.
  5. Will preferentially apply complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments before reaching for more invasive procedures or synthetic medicines.

Reference: Holistic Medicine

How is holistic medicine different than traditional Western medicine?

In principle, traditional medicine would claim to adhere to the same tenets as holistic medicine, except for the preferential use of CAM. In practice, I find the majority of physicians give minimal attention to the spiritual domain and some (e.g. an atheist) would even consider it a waste of time. While physicians are encouraged to inquire about their patient’s religion or spirituality as a way of appreciating the role it plays in the patient’s life, few receive training on how to incorporate the spiritual dimension into a treatment plan.


Modern Western medicine seeks to be evidence-based, meaning that it tries to apply methods and treatments that have been shown beneficial through scientific study. It criticizes CAM treatments for their lack of scientific support. A physician only needs to see a few cases of medical quackery to solidify a negative opinion of CAM therapies. Holistic physicians would point to traditional medicine as failing to attend to the whole person and relying too heavily on drugs for treatment.


What are some of the treatments unique to holistic medicine?

Naturopathy emphasizes using natural substances and methods to promote healing. These interventions are thought to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes.

Chiropractic medicine focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal and neurologic systems. It employs a variety of techniques (e.g., spinal adjustment), to release restrictions and restore normal function.

Homeopathy tries to give substances in small amounts, thinking these will induce a restorative response from the body’s natural healing mechanisms.

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils (concentrated plant extracts), either applied directly to the skin or inhaled, as a way of promoting physical and emotional health.

Ayurvedic medicine is a form of traditional Indian medicine that uses a variety of techniques, including herbs and massage, to promote healing and restore health.


Other methods include acupuncture, acupressure, balneotherapy, reflexology, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and Reiki.


These treatments seem to come from one of three sources:

  1. From an Eastern religious tradition. Practitioners may not emphasize this relationship. Examples include TCM, ayurvedic medicine, reiki, acupuncture, and acupressure.


  1. From a view of the body’s physiology that doesn’t correspond to mainstream scientific knowledge (e.g., reflexology, homeopathy, naturopathy).


  1. A pragmatic approach that does not have a clear mechanism of action, but seems to help people feel better (e.g., aromatherapy, balneotherapy).


What are some of the pros and cons of pursuing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) evaluation and treatments?


  • Many of the approaches have been in use for a long time,
  • Patients find the emphasis on “natural” methods and products appealing.
  • Holistic physicians attend to areas of the person that many physicians ignore.



  • Holistic spirituality is often not Christian.
  • While patients do not need to accept the religious/spiritual basis for a treatment to gain benefit, practitioners usually do ascribe to the treatment’s spiritual roots. The physician’s spirituality will impact the physician-patient relationship.
  • Evidence for the benefit of many treatments is lacking. A few treatments have been shown to be ineffective.
  • While usually not harmful, some CAM treatments can be. For example, ayurvedic herbs can contain lead or other toxins. Homeopathy or naturopathy might be inappropriately used in place of a more effective traditional approach. Herbs can have adverse effects as well as beneficial ones.


Do Catholic physicians practice holistic medicine?

That depends on the physician.

Physicians who live their Catholic faith and actively seek to incorporate it into their medical practice are holistic. Rather than looking to the manipulation of energy fields, use of Eastern meditative practices, etc., they would emphasize the healthful benefit of one’s relationship with God, loving God and others, living by grace, the fruits of the Spirit, living a life of virtue and holiness, trusting in God, and prayer. They lead moral lives and follow a higher standard than the ethical practices endorsed by professional societies, pursuing excellence and showing respect for life regardless of one’s age or disability.


What advice would you give someone seeking a holistic approach?

Don’t go to a physician just because he labels himself “holistic.” First look for physicians who are competent, compassionate, and communicate well.

All physicians should emphasize prevention, wellness, and work hard to uncover the root cause of your health issues, if possible. They should attend to your diet and lifestyle practices. Practitioners don’t always understand what is happening with their patients. They should be willing to admit their ignorance. I would be suspicious of someone who claims to have an answer for everything.

Physicians should keep an open mind when it comes to CAM therapies, just as holistic physicians should be willing to abandon practices that are proven ineffective.

Although they’re in short supply, seek out a Christian physician who practices holistic medicine in the manner I described above. He or she will care about your spiritual as well as your bodily health. They will be willing to pray both with you and for you.


Treating the Whole Person is the third in a series on spirituality and health. Look for next week’s blog on Miraculous Healing.


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