The concept of holistic care has increasingly gained traction in the last few years, particularly in nursing. The concept seems simple: treat each person as an individual and treat the whole person. The reality is that holistic care must be solidly grounded in science, but also come from the heart, which makes it more complex than it first seems.

Conventional vs. Holistic Care

Modern medicine and nursing have become very specialized. Conventional medicine is limited to medications and surgery, while complementary and alternative medicine includes a wide variety of other treatments such as massage, acupuncture and herbalism. Holistic care borrows from all of those disciplines and also brings the mental and spiritual health of the patient into the equation. In fact, some practitioners translate holistic care as “body, mind and spirit.” Holistic care acknowledges the interdependence among all of these aspects. Holistic care practitioners also acknowledge that the body has innate healing capability and that many holistic therapies are designed to tap into that capability.

It’s About Relationships

All too often in today’s medical world, care is something nurses and doctors do to a patient. Medical professionals are the experts and patients are expected to follow directions and be compliant with treatment. In holistic care, the relationship between the patient and doctor or nurse is one of openness, equality and mutual decision-making. All aspects of the individual patient and his or her attitudes, culture, emotions, opinions and thoughts are considered to contribute to recovery, happiness and satisfaction. This system of care has great respect for the patient’s dignity and improves the harmony between body, mind, emotions and spirit.

The Practical Aspects

Although it might seem like a lofty goal, holistic care translates into very practical applications. For example, stress can produce anxiety. It also causes muscle tension, increases in pulse rate and blood pressure and – over the long term – damages the immune system. All of these changes produce negative health effects and impair healing. Medications can lessen anxiety, but many have side effects, and some patients prefer not to take medications for a variety of reasons. A holistic nurse might encourage a patient to talk about the anxiety, provide massage to loosen tight muscles and play soothing music or pray with a patient. Aromatherapy with essential oils is another way to decrease stress.

The Positive Aspects

From the patient’s point of view, many holistic treatments are soothing and comforting. The need for touch is a very important part of what it means to be human. Many hands-on conventional medical therapies actually cause pain. Holistic practices such as massage can counteract the negative effects and help establish a connection between patient and caregiver. Unlike conventional care, holistic treatments often have no side effects. Patients feel a strong connection with the nurse and the interaction is positive for all concerned. For the nurse, it is deeply satisfying to be able to help another human being. In fact, many nurses go into the profession in the first place for just that reason. Holistic care is also often less expensive than conventional therapy, which can help decrease insurance and health system costs.

Highly technical care has its place. If you’re injured in a serious automobile accident, surgery can save your life. A broken leg needs a cast or splint. Complex diagnostic equipment can pinpoint the cause of pain or other symptoms. An air ambulance can get very sick patients to a hospital. However, holistic care incorporates the elements missing from technology – compassion, empathy, hands-on soothing, mutual respect and two-way communication. Combining highly technical care with holistic care offers patients the best of both worlds.