Alternative, Complementary, Holistic &
(Investigator 145, 2012
complementary, holistic and natural are all words used to distinguish
over 1,000 diagnostic techniques, therapies and healing modalities from
traditional western allopathic medicine. (Jack Raso's Dictionary of
Metaphysical Healthcare lists 1169 unnaturalistic methods).
range from age-old
practices such as acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine, through
homoeopathy and iridology to the more contemporary modalities such as
psychic surgery and those employing pseudoscientific gadgetry. Many,
such as therapeutic touch and various versions of hands-on healing, are
re¬inventions of ancient practices. Some are harmless, some achieve
results through the placebo effect, others are downright dangerous and
life threatening. The problem for the uninformed therefore, is to
differentiate between those proven to be effective and those that are
this may not
seem to present a problem to those prepared to accept at face value
what they are told or uncritically read, they can easily be mislead by
worthless anecdotal "evidence" and sagacious advertising — the bald
barber selling hair-growth tonic for example. It should be noted that
the claim has been made that some orthodox medical practitioners are
embracing "alternative" "complementary" or "holistic" medicine, and
that this fact alone should bestow credibility. However, the
definitions appear to have been indiscriminately interchanged without
due reference to their meanings.
definitions, Alternative is a proposition offering the choice
two or more things.
something additional, and the term Holistic (sometimes spelt
wholistic), was coined by Jan Christiaan Smuts in his 1926 book, Holism
and Evolution. Smuts argued that "...'holism' is the inner driving
force behind that (evolutionary) progress." While the idea was not
accepted by mainstream biologists, psychologists Kurt Goldstein and
Abraham Maslow expanded holistic theory as a new definition of human
behaviour. The "whole person" — mind and body, was to be the focus.
While the lay person may be prepared to accept the three definitions as
being adequate enough for the everyday purpose of describing a
particular form of health-care, they do not lend themselves to such
simple classifications and can be further defined as follows.
not part of standard (science based) medicine but has become the
politically correct term for questionable practices formerly considered
to be health fraud and quackery.
between "alternative" and science based medicine is a commitment by the
conventional medical community to test its theories and practices and
an acceptance of accountability.
the other hand, lack scientific evidence to support what the proponents
espouse. Skrabanek and McCormick have suggested that the distinguishing
features of "alternative" medicine are: (1) it does not derive from a
coherent or established body of evidence, and (2) it is not subjected
to rigorous assessment to establish its value.
approaches are rooted in vitalism, the concept that bodily functions
are due to a "life force" as distinct from those explainable by the
laws of physics and chemistry. Nonscientific health systems based on
this philosophy variously maintain that the body can be stimulated to
heal itself; that illness is due to a disturbance of the body's "vital
force"; that disease is caused by an imbalance in the flow of "life
energy", and that the body's "innate energy" can be assisted by
referring to these
energies, vitalists offer no explanation on what form they take, or how
they might be measured. This conveniently enables them to elude
scientific scrutiny. Without that scrutiny consumers cannot determine
if these "energies" are figments of imagination, or a seductive play on
described by its proponents as a synthesis of standard and alternative
methods that uses the best of both. However, no published data
indicates which "complementary" practitioners actually use proven
therapies or the extent to which they use medically useless methods.
approach is special and more complete because it treats the "whole
patient" and not just the disease. However, good physicians have always
paid attention to patients' social and emotional concerns as well as
their physical problems.
significance of the
consultation process is that the special success of the twentieth
century scientific approach to diagnostic treatment has largely stemmed
from a concern with how illnesses arise, specialisation resulting in a
shift from treating the whole person to a particular cause, or to a
particular impairment or disability.
trend is further
compounded when an analysis of the sorts of complaints with which the
general practitioner is presented is examined. Less than ten per cent
will consist of acute or major illnesses; about thirty per cent are
those major chronic conditions generally associated with the aging
process and liable to go on for years, and over fifty per cent are
either self-limiting complaints or those which will clear up easily
with the help of palliatives and supportive treatment alone. There is a
great deal of evidence to show that in the latter group there is a
psychosomatic or neurotic element, much of which can be attributed to
relationships with others.
confronted with psychosomatic problems, many general practitioners will
adhere to a scientific approach and give patients a rational
explanation of their symptoms and take a similar approach to therapy.
Unfortunately, some patients prefer the mystical explanations given
them by New Age practitioners whose approach to health is often far
from rational, hence their popularity.
are, of course,
other influencing factors. These include a general disenchantment with,
or suspicion, of science, the desperation of those suffering from a
terminal illness, and the proclivity of some to believe in the
dangers inherent in
the blind adherence to belief systems based on superstition, the
supernatural and non-science, are evident in those communities where
they thrive. India is a typical example.
lecture tour of
that country in 1990, I learned from psychologists and psychiatrists
specialising in the treatment of physical and mental disabilities that
many problems arise from such beliefs. Although it may be argued that
because of the wide divergence of Eastern and Western cultures, any
comparison between the two would be onerous. The premise however, is
enable readers to
objectively evaluate the worth or otherwise of "alternative" medicine,
it is necessary to be familiar with terms such as "psychosomatic
illness", "the placebo effect", "clinical trials" and "double blind
to, or caused by the interaction of mental and bodily ills by
medication used for its psychological effect or for purposes of
comparison in an experiment.
involving direct observation of patients, carried out to ascertain the
effects of a treatment.
in which neither the patient nor the examiner knows which medication is
genuine or which is the placebo.
randomised double blind
controlled and replicable study is the only one acceptable as
incontrovertible scientific evidence.
should suffice to say
that claims made on behalf of alternative medicines, therapies,
remedies and theories are rarely, if ever, subjected to clinical tests
or to scientifically controlled double-blind tests. As a result, health
fraud is rampant in both Eastern and Western civilisations, and those
ready to believe unquestioningly in extraordinary pseudo-scientific and
simplistic untested therapeutic remedies are vulnerable game for the
need to be scientifically, medically or technologically literate. Just
a little caution and commonsense should be enough to see through the
claims. Ask why, if the therapies, methods, gadgets, gizmos, pills and
potions are so simple, efficacious and cost so little, they have not
been universally adopted, doing away with the necessity of training
doctors and specialists, and building expensive hospitals with highly
specialised and costly equipment.
being taken for a ride by health charlatans is accurate information,
without which an intelligent decision cannot be made. One needs only
ask two questions —"What is it? "and "Is it any good?" I trust that you
will find the answers to those questions in this book.
Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing,
Australian Skeptics Inc.