Holistic Healthcare: what is it, why is it important & who provides it?

By Donna Kamann

Holistic is one of those words that gets tossed around in healthcare, and there is some confusion about what it means. Since starting my nursing studies 30 years ago, I have accepted this narrative and I still believe it to be true: our health includes our physical, emotional, spiritual, social and sexual well-being. These elements are in constant motion, self-correcting to maintain balance. If something is off-kilter in any part of this, all parts are affected. Happily, we have enough self-healing capacity to avert many diseases and in medicine, we say 80% of illness will get better with “tincture (a small amount) of time.”

When someone seeks medical care for a new concern, common practice includes getting a history of the recent illness including the symptoms and any measures that have made things better or worse. This is followed by a physical exam, perhaps some diagnostic tests such as blood work or imaging, a diagnosis and treatment plan.

A holistic approach to the same person with the same problem may include additional questions that could tease out different information.

For example, if someone comes to me with complaints of depression and I am working in a standard healthcare practice, I would ask when the symptoms started, if they have ever had depression before, how severe the symptoms are, and whether the person was in danger of harming themselves or others.  The patient would fill out a depression scale questionnaire so we could document a number to measure the degree of depression. I would draw labs to rule out thyroid, metabolic, or blood disorders and if the lab work was normal, I would recommend standard antidepressant medications and counseling.

In a holistic approach to the same person, in addition to the standard questions, I would also ask the person about their general health status, what they do to stay healthy and if it is working; we would talk about nutrition and digestion, activities/exercise, sleep patterns, energy level, stress, coping skills, learning styles, function capacity at home/work, sexual health, relationships, and spiritual practices. Then, using this information, we may find the diagnosis and treatment look very different. If it turns out the person with depressive symptoms hasn’t been sleeping because they are about to lose their job, something simple to support sleep may be a much more effective intervention. 

In my own practice, I have discovered time and again that a holistic approach is always better. Although it may not always seem relevant, exploring these additional questions is beneficial in the long run. Not only does it uncover potential problems, it also shines light on the things that the patient is doing that support resilience and wellness, and it’s important to play to these strengths.

What makes a person a “holistic practitioner?” Although there are a number of healthcare disciplines that claim they are holistic, I would suggest it isn’t a title or training as much as an approach. If you are searching for a holistic healthcare clinician, be certain whoever you chose truly has enough time to listen, a genuine curiosity about your well-being, and realistic treatment recommendations. 

Be happy, healthy, and whole!