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Holistic medicine's name comes from the Greek word halos, which means whole, and refers to a practice of medicine which treats the body, mind and spirit. Holistic medicine differs from traditional Western medicine in terms of philosophy, diagnostic techniques and treatment options. Individuals taking charge of their own health care would do well to investigate both options.

Medicine and Insurance

One primary difference between holistic and traditional Western medicine may be its inclusion in the insurance system. Holistic health care may not be covered by insurance plans, or treatments may be reimbursed on a case-by-case basis. By contrast, traditional Western medical tests and treatments may be covered to a certain degree, depending on referrals and insurance coverage. The standards for care and the quality of the care provided by holistic practitioners may be variable. Although interactions in the traditional Western medical system may be constrained by complications in the health insurance industry, there may be a more consistent standard of care due to federal regulations.

Cause and Effect in Holistic Medicine

Holistic medicine views illness or injury within the context of social, environmental, and personal circumstance. Rather than determining which genes are responsible, holistic medicine considers how individuals contribute to their health through individual beliefs and lifestyle choices. While this burden of responsibility can be difficult for a patient to accept, this individualized view of health care also assumes the patient has the power to cope, rehabilitate, adapt and recover.

Cause and Effect in Traditional Western Medicine

Traditional Western medicine tends to dissect conditions into their smallest possible component, such as genes and germs. The contribution of the individual to their health care condition receives less focus than how that condition is being expressed. In this way, an individual’s medical history may comprise more symptoms than changes in their lifestyle, situation or philosophy.

Diagnosis and Treatment in Holistic Medicine

The language of holistic medicine varies depending on the modality chosen. However, the diagnosis inevitably includes the contribution of the patient to her condition, but may not include the name of a specific condition or disease. Recommendations may include dietary changes, incorporating exercise, guided imagery or meditation exercises, and direct treatments with acupuncture, herbs, or massage. Treatments may be repeated but short-term, and Western modalities (such as counseling) may be recommended and incorporated. The patient is advised to time off to make further lifestyle changes and reevaluate. In some situations (i.e., sudden-onset headache), patients may be advised to receive evaluation from their primary care physician before returning to holistic care.

Diagnosis and Treatment in Traditional Western Medicine

Diagnosis in traditional Western medicine involves matching an array of symptoms to a known paradigm of diseases and dysfunctions. The paradigm also involves using advanced diagnostic tools to help determine not only the cause, but the progression of a disease. Traditional Western medicine tends to involve specialized care, where conditions are treated by providers who focus on a specific group of symptoms. Treatment often includes the prescription of standardized medication, which may be administered by the patient independently, without necessarily a return visit. Patients may not be expected or encouraged to make lifestyle changes to support the treatment or medication.

Holistic Medicine: Training

As interest in holistic medicine continues to grow, the lines between holistic and traditional Western medicine continue to blur. A 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that over half of the 125 medical schools in the United States offered classes in alternative or complementary medicine.