In 1864, Louis Pasteur ascertained the germ theory, demonstrating that many diseases in humans were caused by foreign microbial organisms. While this finding would revolutionize the field of health care, it also would precipitate a medical debate on the value and curative power of reductionist and holistic approaches to health care — a discussion that remains relevant to our health latitudinarian attitude.
The debate on the potency of the two approaches invites the question: Can either of these perspectives — reductionist and holistic — be regarded as a superior quality of health? And more importantly, can either approach to health care be considered complete if it continues to ignore factors foundational to sustaining a healthy life?
Health sustainability isn’t defined alone by the ability to correct issues as they arise, but rather the capacity to implement preventative measures that forestall an incipient medical delinquency. The merit to healthy (life) sustainability, therefore, should not be measured by the potential to resolve illnesses once they arise, but instead the capacity to both resolve those conditions and return a person’s health to a state of wholesomeness and wellness, specifically a state that remedies potential medical problems.
The absence of diseases does not necessarily indicate a healthy life, yet health care systems seem to be structured on that credence. Also vital to people’s health and quality of life are factors such as their relation to their environments, psychological well-being, lifestyles, emotional health and states of mind. These elements are essential to a person’s wellness and ability to respond to treatments.
Nonetheless, the discovery of germs as disease-causing agents culminated in a shift in which health care today is focused painstakingly on identifying specific diseases and symptoms. Once diagnoses are completed, diseases are combated with prescriptive drugs and treatments that focus on resolving the specific illnesses, rather than on the patient’s overall health.
The evolution of the United States’ health care system, in particular, has understated the impact of healthy life choices, environmental factors and mental health on people’s quality of life.
A holistic perspective to health care addresses these shortcomings but is unpopular and underused in modern health care system.
Holistic health, as defined by Suzan Walter, president and co-founder of the American Holistic Health Association, is an approach to life that, rather than concentrating on an ailment or specific body part, considers the whole person in relation to his or her environment, emphasizing the connection of the mind, body and spirit.
This is the quintessential standard of a personalized health care system — a system that provides its patients with specific treatment options based on their individual characteristics, rather than on a probabilistic analysis on what generally can be applicable.
This is the area in which reductionist health care is lacking and the area that needs the most improvement. Conversely, it is this area in which holistic health shines.
Contrary to popular opinion, these two perspectives are interdependent and complementary ways of addressing a common health concern. Holistic health focuses on the person’s overall health, taking into account all relevant factors, while modern “reductionist” medicine, also equally valuable, focuses on the areas of the body that needs immediate rectifications.
But health care ought to focus not only on those parts needing immediate remedies, but on the whole. This revision to approaches to health care is paramount to ensuring a prolonged state of well-being.
Plato, one of the earliest Western philosophers to study the mind, reasoned that the values of entities are greater than the sum of their parts and cautioned against treatments directed toward any one part of the body, for “the part can never be well unless the whole is well.” As a student of philosophy and an eager premedical student, I find the holistic approach to health care typifies the adequate need for a whole-specific health care system in the United States. It adds often-overlooked benefits while taking into account the urgent concern and the overall wellness of the person.
Improving the U.S. health care system holistically requires a fundamental change in our approach to curative medicine: moving from tackling what’s necessary to addressing what’s most relevant.