The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) has a statement on their web site explaining what “holistic” medicine is. I was interested in this because it’s a slippery word, seemingly simple on the surface but hard to pin down. Superficially, the word comes from the Greek root for “whole” and simply means a perspective that looks at phenomena (organisms, systems, etc) as wholes, rather than analyzing them at the level of component parts. This is simply one of many levels on which phenomena can, and should be examined.
The problem is that this perspective is difficult to distinguish from mysticism and the notion that natural phenomena are irreducibly complex and nothing meaningful can be learned by examining their components. Reductionism and holism should be complementary, but philosophically and politically they are more often seen as incompatible. Thus “holistic” becomes less a term describing an epistemological perspective and more a philosophical or political shibboleth distinguishing those who disdain the methods and explanatory power of science and prefer mystical, vitalist explanations to scientific ones from those of us who see utility and real truth in the explanations science gives at the component as well as the system level. Let’s go through the AHVMA statement and see if we can find some clarity.
First, it recommends looking at “all aspects of the animal’s life.” Of course, that isn’t what they really mean since that is a practical impossibility. Could the patient’s cancer have been caused by once walking across a linoleum floor? Is she diabetic because the light shining through the bedroom window is filtered by oak leaves not maple? If we truly believe everything is relevant then we are helpless to make any useful conclusions at all. What they really mean is just that they want to know about things they consider relevant and which scientific medicine often does not. The trick, then, is to demonstrate that these things truly are relevant, which often fails to happen.
Next the statement recommends “employing all of the practitioner’s senses” when evaluating the patient. I’d be surprised if holistic veterinarians make a lot more use of taste than conventional vets, so generally the idea of using all ones senses in examining a patient doesn’t distinguish scientific from holistic medicine since both use a multisensory examination. Of course, this may be referring to “senses” which science does not acknowledge as being real, such as the psychic awareness of thoughts and emotions or “bioenergetic field” techniques that have been discussed in some of the organization’s continuing education literature and its journal. In that case, it would be true that conventional vets don’t use these “senses.”
Now we get to the heart of what “holistic” is truly used to signify, when the statement recommends “the combination of conventional and alternative (or complementary) modalities of treatment.” There is nothing intrinsic in the concept of holism that requires accepting or using CAM therapies. As I’ve pointed out before, CAM therapies often have theoretical foundations that are completely incompatible with each other, though they tend to be united by vitalist tendencies. Chiropractic is not “holistic” at all according to the root sense. It focuses exclusively on supposed misalignment of the spine as the source of all disease and the object of all treatments. Homeopathy, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the spine when diagnosing or treating an illness but does treat all diseases with whatever substances are believed to mimic the symptoms of the patient when given to healthy people. CAM therapies are not necessarily any less reductionist than scientific medicine, so identifying their use as a component of the holistic veterinary medical approach betrays the ultimately political and marketing nature of the term. It is a warm and fuzzy umbrella under which to gather methods not usually validated by science. CAM therapies are often very narrowly focused on “one true cause” of all disease or the “one true therapy” for all ailments, they just pick a cause or therapy that is unproven or disproven by science.
The statement claims that a vet who follows the holistic approach “wants to find out all about its behaviors, distant medical and dietary history, and its environment including diet, emotional stresses, and other factors.” These sound like the same sort of historical variables any veterinarian considers in gathering data about a patient’s health and disease. The specific meaning attributed to each factor is likely different between science-based and “holistic” vets, but it is a bit of dishonest marketing to suggest conventional doctors are reductionist to the point of ignoring such obviously relevant factors as diet and prior medical history. As I’ve said before, ” I’ve never actually met a veterinarian who considers the patient irrelevant to the health of the knee or the gallbladder or the white blood cell, but CAVM practitioners like to suggest that such myopia is the only alternative to embracing vitalism and faith-based medicine.”
Next we have a very broad-brush paint job illustrating how really nice holistic vets are:
“Holistic medicine, by its very nature, is humane to the core. The wholeness of its scope will set up a lifestyle for the animal that is most appropriate. The techniques used in holistic medicine are gentle, minimally invasive, and incorporate patient well-being and stress reduction. Holistic thinking is centered on love, empathy and respect.”
All of these vague, pleasant characterizations apply equally well to veterinarians who practice science-based medicine. I might quibble with what is really meant by “love” and “empathy,” since I think these terms are often a cover for claims that alternative practitioners are psychically in touch with the spirits or souls of their patients, a claim I think is more about religion than medicine. But the fact that conventional veterinarians are interested in facts, evidence, and truth does not, as CAM vets like to suggest, imply that somehow they aren’t human beings capable of treating their patients and clients with as much kindness and compassion as anyone else. I would argue evidence-based medicine is a pre-requisite for truly compassionate care since without it we are likely to offer our patents ineffective and even harmful therapies that don’t really help them.
Now comes a summary of the holistic medicine methodology:
“The holistic practitioner is interested in genetics, nutrition, family relationships, hygiene, and stress factors. Many patients present in a state of “disease.” At this point the holistic challenge lies in the question “why?” By a series of analytic observations and appropriate testing the goal becomes finding the true root source of the pathology. A simple-appearing symptom may have several layers of causation. Only when the true cause of the ailment has been found is there the possibility for a lasting recovery.
It is at this point that the most efficacious, least invasive, least expensive, and least harmful path to cure is selected. “
This sounds like a fair description of clinical medicine in general. Nothing here distinguishes a holistic approach from a conventional approach. The implication, of course, is that this is not the method a conventional veterinarian follows because presumably we’re so busy focusing with tunnel vision on superficial symptoms and reaching for toxic drugs that we aren’t looking deeply enough. Fortunately for our patients, this is just a vapid cliché.
Finally, we have this qualifier:
” In many acute situations, treatment may involve aspects of surgery and drug therapy from conventional western technology, along with alternative techniques to provide a complementary whole. This form of treatment has great value for severe trauma and certain infections. It often outperforms other methodologies. It is also at this time that other treatment plans such as those listed below are brought into use. Once the symptoms have been treated, the task is not complete until the underlying disease patterns have been redirected. The patient, as well as the client, will be guided to a new level of health. “
I have taken the liberty of translating this for those not intimately familiar with CAM-speak:
When we have a definable disease or an urgent medical problem, we reach for scientific medicine because it works better. However, when we have vague or hard to define symptoms or we’re just trying to convince the owner that ongoing health can only be achieved and maintained by constant subtle adjustments of the unmeasurable essence of life, then we reach for alternative methods since they and their effects are also vague and hard to define.
There is no question that the concept of holism in its original form has some value. Things can be understood about complex systems at the whole system level that may be missed when looking at their component parts. And some systems may exhibit behavior that is intrinsically not predictable at the component level even though they are fundamentally deterministic (see chaos theory) while other systems may be fundamentally indeterministic. However, none of this legitimate epistemological theory has anything to do with vitalist mysticism or the embracing of unproven or even disproven medical approaches. Looking at the whole patient in its real life context is a valuable element to understanding health and disease. Using any and all therapies that sound good to us regardless of whether or not they have real value is a mistake. Unfortunately, the popular use of “holistic” to market CAM therapies confounds these unrelated approaches.