Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing


Harry Edwards

(Investigator 145, 2012 July)

Alternative, 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).

They 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 not.

Although 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.

Using dictionary definitions, Alternative is a proposition offering the choice between two or more things.

Complementary indicates 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.

Alternative medicine is 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.

The principal differences 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.

"Alternative" methods on 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.

Many "alternative" 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 manipulation.

In 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 words.

Complementary medicine is 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.

Holistic implies that an 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Consequently, when 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.

There 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 supernatural.

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.

During a 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 still valid.

To 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 tests".

Psychosomatic: relating to, or caused by the interaction of mental and bodily ills by psychological means.

Placebo: an inert medication used for its psychological effect or for purposes of comparison in an experiment.

Clinical test: a test involving direct observation of patients, carried out to ascertain the effects of a treatment.

Double-blind test: a test in which neither the patient nor the examiner knows which medication is genuine or which is the placebo.

A randomised double blind controlled and replicable study is the only one acceptable as incontrovertible scientific evidence.

It 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 quacks.

One does not necessarily 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.

The best defence against 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.

From: Edwards, H.,1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc.