What is the BHMA?

The BHMA is a grassroots organisation funded by our supporters with no corporate or government sponsorship. We are therefore able to speak out without fear or favour.

We are a registered charity with a single charitable objective: to educate doctors, other healthcare professionals and the general public in the principles and practice of holistic medicine. Like all human issues, this is not a simple task. Our website wishes to honour and celebrate this complexity yet be accessible and interesting to the general reader. We all have a stake in our health services.

Find out about membership of the BHMA

Why is the BHMA needed?

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.                          Marcel Proust (La Prisonniere)

We believe that many of the problems we face in the 21st century come from taking too narrow a view of the human predicament. Being human is complex and seems to become ever more so. When ill health arises it is tempting to simplify, categorise, label and anonymise. This often entails ignoring or brushing aside the paradoxes, contradictions and contexts that largely comprise meaning  in  relationships. These deeper meanings are often concealed within and around the immediate issue. We can all simplify like this: everyone involved in healthcare – the patient, the patient’s family, the healthcare professional, the commissioning and service managers and, of course, the politicians responsible for setting policy. We can all avoid deeper problems that seem too big or too complex or too worrying to admit to ourselves. Then we focus on something that feels more certain and familiar, and can become rigid about it. If we do no more than attach a simple name to the suffering, and then applying the remedy that goes with that name we risk misunderstanding and focusing on the wrong problem.

The human spirit glows from that small inner doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain and injustice.                                   Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals)

Facing the complexity of being human is not the same as mastery. We do not need to know everything. A holistic understanding often emerges from small details of human interactions which give us glimpses of the heart and soul of a person, of a community, of a whole society. By embracing our own uncertainty and vulnerability we are more likely to liberate our imagination, and so find meaning and purpose in our own lives and in the lives of others. This is often key to our best healing and palliation.

The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things.      Saint Thomas Aquinas (in Paths to the Divine: Ancient and Indian by Vensus A George)

We make meaning through connection with ourselves, with others and with nature. The more we focus on these crucial connections, the more we move from things to people, from success to caring, from money-wealth to love-wealth, the more meaning we will find.

This is very difficult for all concerned so long as science-derived evidence, technology, algorithms and guidelines (with their aura of often spurious certainty) so decisively dominate the healthcare world. This biomedicine may be complicated in detail but it is narrow in scope; too narrow to grasp human complexity.

The human encounters that offer a chance of a healing connection require the imaginative projection called empathy. Without this, our encounters remain unimaginatively mechanistic: conversation as technique rather than as space for shared strength and vulnerability. If we are to find meaning in our own and another’s suffering, the ‘evidence’ must be drawn from a wider range of experience and knowledge; for instance, poetic, dramatic and fictional literature, visual arts, philosophy, practical crafts, perhaps dancing or digging the earth or watching a bird build its nest in Spring.

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of
meaning and purpose.         Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

Healthcare systems across the developed world are struggling to cope with both the human task and the economic cost. It is often said that this is because we are living longer and medical treatments are becoming more complicated and expensive. This is a narrow view. Just as simple explanations of illness in an individual are often inadequate, so it is with the healthcare crisis. A more holistic, more personal and less industrial approach must be part of the solution.

We must be wary of Simplicity and her sister Certainty. Attempts to simplify and categorise our way out of complexity are like digging ourselves into a hole: the world becomes quieter, lonelier and darker. We are now living in that loveless place that tragically germinates the ‘cruelty, pain and injustice’ described by Alinsky in the above quotation.

For too long we have treated illness as our enemy rather than our teacher.

It is precisely in a broken age that we need mystery and a reawakened
sense of wonder: need them in order to be whole again.          Ben Okri (A way of being free)

Find out about membership of the BHMA

What does ‘holistic’ mean?

The above section shows what the BHMA means by a holistic understanding of healthcare. But can we actually define the word? Like the word ‘love’, the reality usually transcends any attempt at a definition. However, our mission is to show how it is possible to talk about holistic healthcare and develop it meaningfully. In fact, we have found no suitable alternative word in the English language. Perhaps any ‘nation of shopkeepers’ has little use for the concept! A South African, Jan Smuts coined the term ‘holism’ in 1926. Smuts was a ‘prominent South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher’ prior to the establishment of apartheid (which idea he did not support).

Interestingly, the African word, ‘ubuntu‘, comes close to the meaning of ‘holistic’ used by the BHMA.

The dictionary definition of holism (from the Greek holos) states that nothing can be fully understood unless one sees the whole system of which it is part; that is the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. It has the same linguistic roots as whole, holy and health. At the BHMA we use the word in this sense, not in the sense of its association with Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Many different forms of healthcare practice are included under this umbrella term. Many CAM practitioners work in a way that we would accept as holistic. Some do not. For more see the article linked below.

Read Being Holistic by Chair William House, published in JHH Spring 2016

What does the BHMA do?

We provide a home and a bold, critical voice for those wanting healthcare that puts humanity and values first.

We publish the high quality Journal of Holistic Healthcare (JHH) three times per year in both digital and paper formats. This journal is aimed at a wide readership both within and beyond the healthcare professions. A searchable archive of JHH articles since 2004 is under development. We also publish newsletters from time to time.

Our new radically innovative website, launched in May 2016, includes a growing feature which looks at the dimensions of healthcare through the qualities of the person – both professionals and the public. We are searching for a common language that reflects our shared humanity as the basis for all we do.

We collaborate with like-minded organisations for joint projects that emerge from shared aims. For example, we have worked with the Scientific and Medical Network, the College of Medicine, the Centre for Resilience at the University of Westminster and the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine in Bristol.

Find out about membership of the BHMA

What Patients say:

“I think holistic care is humane care where it is about individuals not their illness.”


I want a holistic doctor to look after me, someone to really listen and try to understand me. 

Someone who is caring as well as being good at his or her job is being holistic.


“I have a holistic nurse. She went to so much trouble to help me sort my life out, you know, that bit extra effort to find something that might help, even phoned me at home to see how I was getting on.”

”Instead of just printing out a prescription we talked about how I could do things for myself, no one’s done that before.”

What we say:

“Holism is more about relatedness rather than separation, taking a broader view rather than reducing individuals to disease labels. A holistic approach recognises that our relationships, our culture, our immediate and global environment all profoundly affect our health and well-being.”
Prof David Peters, Editor of the Journal of Holistic Healthcare 

“A willingness to use a wide range of interventions … an emphasis on a more participatory relationship between doctor and patient; and an awareness of the impact of the ‘health’ of the practitioner on the patient.” 
Patrick Pietroni, founding Chairman of the BHMA writing in Practitioner in 1997

“It’s time to replace over-reliance on pharmaceutical ‘magic bullets’ with diverse approaches for creating health. We need to support well-being, self-care in chronic disease and the well-being of health-workers. Above all we have to embrace effective and sustainable solutions for the millions who need more than biomedicine alone can offer.” 
Simon Mills, BHMA trustee

” ‘Holistic’ is a good and useful word. For a start it does not mean a particular religion, faith or belief. What it means is a general approach — an approach that is open-hearted, open-minded, recognises the connections between all aspects of life and respects the essence of all the world’s various spiritual traditions. It is also a word that recognises the links between spirituality, health and wellbeing; and supports our care and love for the natural world.” 
William Bloom, Author and educator

The BHMA Journey

In 1983, whilst a group of woman activists were setting up the famous Greenham Common protest camp against US Cruise Missiles on UK soil, a group of doctors and healthcare workers formed an organisation they called the British Holistic Medical Association (BHMA). This was a time of rebellion against what many young (and not so young) people believed was a misguided and dangerous adversarial and militarised approach to mankind’s problems. In 1961 US president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had warned about the ‘military-industrial complex’ (MIC). Before long, the medical world recognised another MIC, the ‘medical-industrial complex’. In both cases military and healthcare policies would meet the needs of the respective supply industries at the expense of their prime purposes: to keep the nation safe and healthy respectively.

In many ways the military metaphor of attacking disease with powerful ‘weapons’ produced and deployed on an industrial scale has had remarkable results. But there is ‘collateral damage’, or in political jargon, ‘unintended consequences’. The founders of the BHMA understood this very well. The vulnerable human and the root causes of illness are easily overlooked in the heat of battle against disease. 

The BHMA founders proclaimed that the people must be cared for in such a way that all aspects of their being and their environment contribute to the understanding of their malady. In addition they felt that the person of the practitioner or therapist responsible for the patient must be part of the healing process. They adopted as their motto, ‘Physician heal thyself’’, for a lack self-knowing and self-caring is a barrier to healing.

As it grew, the BHMA promoted this holistic approach primarily through education. Over the years, conferences and workshops were held and a regular newsletter and journal produced.  A new co-operation flourished between some enthusiastic state registered practitioners and many Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioners. The mind-body connection was important and spirituality and its place in healthcare was explored.

Meanwhile, the Medical Industrial Complex made a strong alliance with the movement for hard scientific evidence, and ‘Evidence Based Medicine’ (EBM) was born. This rapidly acquired power and influence, whilst the alliance of the BHMA with CAM (with its relatively weak basis in hard science) left the BHMA and other like-minded groups almost beyond the fringe of mainstream medicine. Far from becoming a beacon of excellence in healthcare, the BHMA’s radical holism looked like a foreign language within the new medical-scientific-industrial and consumerist culture. The advent of managerialism in the UK National Health Service created a reinforced concrete framework for this shiny new way. Only now, in the second decade of the 21st century, is the radical unsustainability of this highly stressed structure becoming obvious.

Despite all of this, the BHMA has continued to produce its high quality Journal of Holistic Healthcare and has been at the forefront of innovative ideas for healthcare. Although the BHMA is a small organisation, it has been relentless in its promotion of compassionate and competent care of whole humans within their context.  

So ‘Where is holistic healthcare today?’ If you are a pessimist you will despair at the industrialisation of our medical institutions and the growing influence of Big Pharma.  If you are an optimist you can see many examples of compassionate integrated care throughout our healthcare system.  Many challenges are ahead, particularly climate change which is perhaps the biggest threat to health on our planet. But, as always, ‘Times they are a changing’.

Over the last few years, the word holistic is being used increasingly in mainstream healthcare. Some of this is a reaction to the much publicised Mid-Staffordshire Hospital tragedy in which many patients were severely neglected by the hospital teams. There were many other less remembered scandals in other hospitals and care homes. It is clear to us, however, that holistic vision has often been used in the very limited sense of taking social circumstances into consideration when treating the patient in an otherwise biomedical, reductionist way. It is clear that more fundamental change is needed.

Since 2013, we at the BHMA have shifted our focus and language so that it will sound and look less foreign to those in mainstream healthcare, including much less attention paid to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. We are developing an entirely new website with an innovative feature that moves away from diseases and types of therapy towards the qualities of the practitioner and of the patient as human beings. We call these the ‘dimensions of holistic being’. We are just at the beginning with this and some parts are quite basic, but do let us know what you think of it so far.

But our contribution is not all online! We collaborate with like-minded organisations to mount events including conferences. Our wonderful Journal of Holistic Healthcare (JHH) now has a new Editorial Board and a renewed vibrancy that engages with today’s issues. We produce three issues of the JHH per year and full members receive a paper copy and access to all past issues from 2004. Annual membership subscriptions remain at £48 including print copies of the journal, or E-membership at £25 for which you can access and download the pdf version of the Journal. This is excellent value and useful for CPD, for research and understanding of holistic being. But perhaps most important, as a member you will be keeping alive and helping to increase the understanding and the practice of holistic healthcare.

Dr William House, Chair, BHMA