What is Holism in Healthcare?

What is Holism?

Holism is the theory that parts of a whole are intimately interconnected, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, and cannot be understood without reference to the whole.

Holism emphasises relatedness rather than separation and considers the system within which the whole exists, as well as the whole itself. In an attempt to define holism, we might say:

Nothing can be fully understood unless one sees the whole system of which it is part – and the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

Holism is often applied in psychology, language, philosophy, anthropology, ecology, education, economics, medicine and healthcare.

What is Holism in Health?

In understanding human sickness and health, holism can be considered to have three main facets:

  1. Rather than considering bodily parts, organs, or even organ systems individually, the body is viewed as a whole. Therefore, the body parts and their condition at any given time are examined with reference to the whole physical body. So we are managing the whole person.
  2. The physical body, being part of the whole that is the person (the patient) is considered along with relevant non-physical aspects: the mind, emotions, spirit (however that is interpreted) and the person’s interpersonal relationships.
  3. The body, mind, spirit, sickness and health are considered within their wider context. This includes both the immediate environment (local community, living conditions) and the broader context (culture, and global environmental or even political factors).

Overall, we can say that holistic approaches to health consider how illness affects the mind, body, emotions and spirit (and vice-versa) and the impacts of the environment and community.

What is Holistic Healthcare?

Holistic Healthcare is often conflated with the field of alternative and natural therapies. Although many alternative and natural therapies take a holistic approach, the term holistic healthcare does not refer to any specific types of treatment. It is possible to take a holistic approach whether practising alternative healthcare, conventional western medicine, or any combination of the two.

A key characteristic of holistic healthcare is that it takes a broader view than that which is commonplace in conventional medicine.

To focus only on an individual’s disease and rely exclusively on pharmaceutical ‘magic bullets’ would not be holistic. Rather than reducing individuals health issues to disease labels, holism looks for diverse approaches to creating health.

Holistic healthcare embraces the importance of emotions, beliefs, experiences and relationships, and how family, community and the surrounding world support health or harm it.

In summary:

  1. Holistic healthcare pays attention to the whole body.
  2. Holistic healthcare pays attention to the whole person – in both physical and non-physical aspects.
  3. Holistic healthcare pays attention to the person’s context (e.g. family, diet, and living conditions).
  4. Holistic healthcare values the health of the entire system within which patients (and practitioners) exist and are treated.
  5. Holistic healthcare embraces diverse approaches to creating health.
  6. Holistic healthcare aims to support patients to self-care and self-manage wherever appropriate and feasible

Holistic Health and Self-Care

A holistic approach to health often recognises that health cannot necessarily be bestowed on a patient from the outside, by a practitioner. In acute situations – infections and injuries, for instance – patients need clinicians to be competent and fully in charge. But when illness is long-term, or when ‘fixing’ isn’t feasible, clinicians may have to stand back and help the patient take decisions and manage their own self-care.

As well as treating illness and disease, whole-person medicine aims to help build resilience and well-being. A holistic approach to health takes an interest not just in the biochemistry and pathology of disease, but in the routes to ill health and to good health. Sustainable holistic healthcare recognises the stark reality of social and health inequalities, the importance of a healthy material and emotional environment and the need to support healthy lifestyle choices by all possible means.

Why is Holistic Healthcare Important Today?

The growing interest in holistic healthcare globally stems from the realisation that only by bringing medical and environmental concerns together with a thorough understanding of physiology and psychology can proper well-being be established. It reflects our need to use medical, environmental and other sciences more effectively. With unprecedented levels of lifestyle-related diseases and mental and environmental health challenges, we need holism now more than ever as we strive to ensure modern healthcare works for practitioner, patient and planet. Being human is complex and seems to become ever more so.

When ill health strikes, the medical response of making a diagnosis and prescribing treatment can be life-saving in infectious and acute disease. But where the long-term disorders of our time are concerned this will seldom be enough. Holistic healthcare aims to reduce the factors that undermine wellbeing and to boost health-positive body and mind resources e.g. diet, relaxation, exercise, emotions and relationships.

Healthcare systems across the developed world are struggling to cope with the costs of healthcare; people are living longer and medical treatments are becoming more complicated and expensive. Lifestyle and environmentally related diseases, especially type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and autoimmune diseases are on the rise. One person in six (in the UK) now experiences poor mental health. Many patients nevertheless are still unmotivated to engage in their own self-care, and in high-pressured systems doctors may tend to focus more on prescribing than on individual needs.

Humankind faces a planet-wide climate crisis. In this time of change, there is a need to rethink health and healthcare and how healthcare systems adapt to the growing demands of diseases caused by lifestyle, poverty, global warming, environmental loss and pollution. As the Covid19 pandemic has indicated, our political and medical systems are not necessarily fit to meet oncoming public health challenge and disasters.

As healthcare continues to industrialise in the face of soaring demand many patients, and the clinicians on whom they rely, will need the counter-balance of a more holistic, empowering and less production-line approach More people will want to stay well for longer rather than rely on overstretched hard to access healthcare systems. In parallel, foresighted organisations and policy-makers should make improving human and environmental well-being their guiding light. In all the obvious ways, better housing, education and employment mean that people can both better care for themselves and be better cared for by others. Faced with soaring challenges to healthcare worldwide, a holistic approach embraces sustainable solutions for the millions who need more than biomedicine alone can offer.

Read more about The Importance of Holism in Medical Care Today and ways this can be promoted from one of our Student Essay winners.

Global Holistic Healthcare Policy

The World Health Organisation recognises the importance of holistic approaches to healthcare, as reflected in its global strategy on people-centred and integrated health services and people-centred healthcare policy framework

The usefulness of a holistic approach is increasingly being recognised and integrated into NHS policy in the UK, for example in the management of musculoskeletal problems and arthritis.


The Importance of Relationships in Holistic Healthcare

Anyone who has been seriously ill knows the vital importance of feelings, relationships and hope in aiding recovery. Holistic healthcare aims to be compassionate and person-centred. It recognises that:

  • life and the living world are complex
  • there are many ways – including science – to understand this relationship
  • holistic care and treatment often calls for a diversity of knowledge and  skills
  • health, its breakdown and restoration are complex
  • to understand this we need more than medical science alone   
  • human ‘individuals’ are always in relationship to others, the environment and society 
  • the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind
  • food, feelings, way of life, and livelihood support health or undermine it 
  • our surroundings – material, chemical, emotional – support health or undermine it 
  • the practitioner-patient relationship can support health or undermine it 
  • loneliness  and a loss of meaning are bad for our health

Practitioner Well-Being in Holistic Healthcare

Each of us has the potential for caring, responsiveness and adaptability. Those who work in healthcare need to keep these qualities alive within themselves if they are to help others. In the motto, “Physician Heal Thyself,” ‘healing’ refers to ‘making whole’ – re-establishing connectedness and relationship where they have failed or been forgotten.

In organisations (e.g. a hospital or a company)  a holistic approach would also focus on co-creating systems that support wellbeing, including the wellbeing of hard-pressed workers.  In healthcare, users’ experiences and outcomes always depend on a mix of technical skill and compassionate care.  

The BHMA includes within its membership professional colleagues with similar attitudes and experiences who can help one another maintain their own wholeness as people and professionals. The BHMA also encourages contact between practitioners with diverse ideas and skills that might  complement and enhance each others’ ways of working and thinking.

Find out more about holistic practice with the BHMA.


This article has been brought to you by the BHMA: The British Association for Holistic Medicine & Health Care

The BHMA is a membership organisation that promotes holistic approaches to healthcare. We support, educate and inform a broad community of healthcare professionals and wider society about the principles and practice of compassionate, holistic healthcare. We collaborate with other organisations that share our aims and we publish the highly regarded Journal of Holistic Healthcare & Integrative Medicine three times per year.

The BHMA encourages cooperation and conversation about holistic healthcare. It promotes  practices that nurture or restore health at every level – from the genome to the ozone layer.

In the BHMA we look for ways to exploit the power of bio-science, without sacrificing the benefits of a holistic approach. 

Visit our website to find out more about what we do, access our library of journals, or become a member of the BHMA.