I work in both a traditional medical practice as well as a more holistic, lifestyle-focused practice. While my education and training are heavily grounded in scientific, evidence-based treatments, I also value my more holistic, mind-body centered training. Yet in every circle I encounter, at the hospital with other providers or in a nutrition conference with other holistic minded healers, I am confronted with a dichotomy. Holistic health practices and traditional medicine always seem to criticize each other. I often feel torn between the two paradigms. At the end of the day, the focus should not be on arguing who is “right” or “wrong”, but rather providing our patients with the best treatment that fits their lifestyle and need.
Each practice has a long history with loyal practioners. Holistic health views psychological, social and physical components as one connected entity that should be treated together. This differs from “traditional” medical practice, which focuses on each system of our body separately and emphasizes on specific physiological mechanisms within each system. The rationale behind the holistic approach may seem to lack adequate scientific explanation, while modern medical practice is based on current scientific evidence and research. This may seem fundamentally sound, but there are many limitations to the scientific approach. Experimental design constraints or uncontrollable variables can prevent the study from establishing a cause-and-effect relationship needed to validate a particular treatment. This can limit treatment options, often making modern medicine inadequate for many sufferers. An exclusively scientific approach often fails to anticipate outliers (I.e. patients who have an unexpected adverse reaction to treatment or illness leading to complications). The scientific approach seeks to find answers by forming and testing hypothesis or models. Ideally, these cycles of re-forming and re-testing newer models lead us closer to truth or reality. However, in its fervor to find an accurate explanation, it adopts a scope that has many blind spots. Holistic treatments offer sensible, practical approaches to healing that are usually less invasive and tends to have less side effects. However, unlike the scientific approach, it lacks robust data for a myriad of reasons (not least of which is financing a multi-million dollar trial to test efficacy of a treatment that may never make any money for a corporation, regardless of its potential to improve quality of life).
I believe that despite the fundamentally different philosophy and approach between the two paradigms, they are essentially different sides of a same coin. A patient does not care about the scientific rigor of a treatment if they have already experienced the treatment benefits, and who is to say future scientific advances will not resolve some of the differences between the two paradigms. Acupuncture, viewed as a barbaric practice a decade ago by “modern science”, has slowly integrated into current mainstream medical practice. Epigenetics shows us that gene expressions depend on environmental factors, proving the intricate relationship between our genes and lifestyle. Modern science is slowly unraveling the complex interplay between disease and lifestyle.
Healing is not simply a process of eradicating disease, it is a process of improving of our overall mental and physical well-being. We are slowly progressing through a “post-paradigm transition” wherein debates and evidence will lead us to integrate holistic healing and traditional western medical approaches to provide better care for all.