It's time to reclaim holism

Holistic. It's one of those words that's sure to set any skeptic’s teeth on edge. It's basically a codename for woo, bandied about by supporters and pushers of all sorts of magic, unicorn tears, and snake oil.

But should it be? Is it time for the medical profession to reclaim the label holistic as its own, and start shouting from the rooftops about how we are holistic practitioners? I think it is, and here’s why.

holistic

həʊˈlɪstɪk,hɒ-/

adjective

Philosophy

adjective: holistic

characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

Medicine

characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.

There is a general perception, gleefully pushed by proponents of alternative healthcare,  that somehow conventional healthcare and holism are at odds with each other. The image of an uncaring, white-coated medical professionals hell-bent on simply treating that one particular symptom, with no regard for the fact that a patient is attached to that symptom seems pervasive.

We don’t help ourselves, I suppose. With a limited time on GP appointments, for example, its easy to feel like you’re being rushed through the system. Some surgeries ask that you book one appointment per ailment. Our health care professionals tend to specialise in one particular type of illness, and you can start to get the impression that they only care about that particular bit of your life, despite the fact that it’s very often all interconnected. You can feel passed from pillar to post, one day an appointment with a diabetes nurse, the next day an appointment with someone else for your arthritis, and two days later an appointment with a mental health specialist. So I do understand that it can seem like, as healthcare professional, we only care about your symptoms. 

But, even at the most basic level, it is impossible and really quite dangerous  to practice healthcare without looking at the patient as a whole. We’re all trained to do it, and its become so second nature to us that we have all sort of forgotten to be proud of it. As a result, we've lost control of the word holistic and we’re allowing unscrupulous charlatans to creep in to the public’s consciousness on the back of it. Of course, there are improvements to be made, but I think on the whole we do bloody well in the NHS, given the knowledge, funding and time constraints we’re lumbered with.

Now, in my day job as a medicines information pharmacist, I actually have no direct contact with patients. But I still, fundamentally, operate as a holistic practitioner. Here’s a basic example of what I mean:

GP: “Ah, hi there, I’m just wondering if there are any interactions between Champix and CellCept?”

In this sort of seemingly simple interaction enquiry, it is imperative that I look at the patient as a whole, rather than simply as two drugs out there on their own. 

  • Champix®▼(varenicline) is a drug used to help patients stop smoking
  • CellCept® (mycophenolate mofetil) is an immunosuppressive drug used to stop organ rejection in transplant patients. 

If I were to look at interactions of these two drugs,  I wouldn't find any,So fine, we’re good to go, right? I mean, I’ve answered the question, done my job, and all is well, yes? 

No, not at all. If I’m going to safely answer this question, I need to look at the patient as a whole. I need to acknowledge that they’re not simply a smoking machine that needs to stop but they’re a living, breathing complicated human.  I need to look at the patient holistically, not just as some isolated drugs.

So our patient is in his mid-forties, using the mycophenolate mofetil because he has previously had a heart transplant. He has a history of depression (understandable really, given how ill he has been in the past), and takes a couple of other medicines too (no major interactions on checking). He wants to stop smoking, which is great, a really positive step for him, but he’s failed a few attempts already whilst using nicotine replacement therapies. He's found these failed attempts frustrating in the past,which has then triggered bouts of depression. His liver and kidneys are working just fine.

So, looking at the patient as a whole, I need to think about how using varenicline will impact him as a person. Some of my thoughts go thus:

  • Stopping smoking itself might affect some drugs, as there are chemicals in cigarette smoke which can affect the enzymes that metabolise some drugs. Is this the case with any of these drugs?

  • Quitting smoking itself can be a trigger for depression or suicidal ideation. 

  • There is also an association between varenicline and changes in behaviour and thinking, including depression and suicidal ideation. Given this patient’s history, this will need to be discussed with him and he’ll need to be monitored carefully.

  • Certain cardiovascular events were reported more frequently with varenicline than placebo in trials: we need to bear that in mind and monitor him for any adverse reactions, especially given his heart transplant

  • Not succeeding in giving up smoking has made him depressed in the past. Continuing to smoke increases his cardiovascular risks. A good old risk vs benefit decision needs to be made.

So I discuss all this with the Dr, and her response is:

“Ah that's great. Yep, I knew about the depression stuff but to be honest I hadn't really thought about the cardiovascular risks. I'll discuss it all with him, and I think we'll go ahead and prescribe it but I'll make sure to keep him closely monitored”

By looking at the patient holistically, his Dr and I have made sure that he will know to look out for any cardiac effects and to report it as soon as possible if he does experience any side effects. We can make sure that he's also prepared for the fact that his mood might change, and knows to report any of that too. He’s willing to take these risks for the sake of stopping smoking, so we’re helping him to take a really positive step in his life, aimed with all the information he needs to do it safely.

That’s just a small example of how I practice holistic medicine in my daily life. All over the NHS, at every level, other healthcare professionals are doing the same thing in their practice. We don’t declare ourselves to be holistic, because its such second nature that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. Maybe its time to start reminding people-and ourselves- that conventional medicine does, fundamentally, mean holistic medicine. 

Hxxx