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What is holistic care and how is it changing nursing?

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What is holistic care and how is it changing nursing? ”


Once in a while, a new line of thinking comes along in every industry that changes working practices forever – a ‘eureka’ moment so influential it has the power to alter the direction of a sector evermore. 

From Babbage and Turing’s musings and early design of the modern-day computer to the adaptation of the assembly line in manufacturing, history is littered with examples where new thinking has brought about enduring change. 

Holistic nursing may well prove to be one such example of a sector-defining change of thought that has the power to alter the direction of an entire industry – this time, the nursing and care sector.  

The fundamentals of holistic care 

At the heart of the holistic care approach is the recognition and acceptance of the importance of mental wellbeing as part of an overall picture of total health. Holistic care takes account of more than just the physical manifestations of an ailment and rather places equal focus on the body, mind and spirit. 

Holistic care is defined as being, “The treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.” The holistic approach stresses the importance of treating each patient as an individual and considering their entire circumstances rather than focusing only on a particular condition or medical problem.  

Consequently, a holistic approach will take a much wider view of the health of a patient as a whole – including taking account of emotions, wants, social circumstances and relationships to devise the most successful and most beneficial direction for care.  

Moreover, holistic nursing also works on the over-riding principle that prevention is the best cure, essentially nailing potential health issues at source – often before they’ve had the chance to become medical problems in themselves. 

A short history of holistic nursing

There is no defined start date for the inception of holistic nursing and alternative care and therapies have existed for many centuries. However, in modern-day terms, many would accredit the earliest evidence of a holistic approach to Florence Nightingale, probably the most famous and influential nurse in history. 

Nightingale’s all-encompassing approach to care revolutionized popular nursing practices at the turn of the century. Nightingale placed particular emphasis on the importance of nurses becoming a role model in the recovery of patients, through displaying empathy and taking account of their entire, unique circumstances.

It’s commonly believed that this broader approach to care was pioneered by Nightingale – a woman famed for her compassion, empathy and willingness to take a more personal, prescient approach to care.

Is holistic care similar to alternative care? 

It’s very common for people to confuse holistic care with alternative care therapies – as well as other less-proven folk treatments and medicines. While holistic care certainly wouldn’t rule out the use of alternative care treatments, a holistic approach is far more complex and wide-ranging. 

Indeed, a holistic care approach would allow practitioners to adopt any variety of care methods tailored to the overall recovery and wellness of the patient. A holistic carer would first identify the patient’s core ailments, then devise a treatment bespoke to their needs – one designed to encompass everything from mental therapy to medicines and even sociological treatments. 

Holistic care does not preclude any single treatment but rather evaluates the perceived worth of all types of healing on the overall health of the patient – no matter how diverse. For this reason, alternative therapies can often feature in a holistic approach, when deemed appropriate.   

The core elements of holistic care 

At the heart of holistic care is a fundamental change of emphasis on the part of the carer. Rather than simply administering treatments for a patient’s illness, a holistic carer works to understand the identity, personality, wants and needs of both patient and nurse – to build the relationship between the two and to encourage healthy living and overall wellbeing.

Given holistic care takes such a wide-ranging approach to the recovery of patients, it should come as little surprise that almost any type of treatment is considered viable and applicable. Anything that could be considered as beneficial to a patient’s overall well-being could be used as part of a wider treatment plan. 

Typical areas addressed by holistic care might include anything that could potentially be of benefit to a patient’s physiology, mental health, psychology, social environment or spiritual well-being and beliefs. So, in other words, anything as diverse as physiotherapy sessions to time spent praying. 

Holistic care takes a pragmatic approach to health, appreciating that we’re all different and are each susceptible to different life patterns or influences that might, in turn, be detrimental to our health. For example, we each have our own stress-inducing factors, bad habits or external social influences that can alter our mental state, in turn, potentially promoting sickness. 

By addressing the idea that health isn’t just one single factor and that all aspects of our lives are intertwined, the holistic care approach recognizes that medical care goes far beyond just medicines – rather that our well-being is more about an all-inclusive attitude to healthy living. 

Holistic care in practice – taking a wider view of a specific problem

A good example of holistic care might be how a nurse could approach the treatment of heart disease. Traditionally, the nurse would look purely at the problem itself – i.e. the heart disease in isolation – and might prescribe medicines or treatment to deal precisely with the ailment. 

However, stress, while part of everyday life, is thought to be a leading cause of heart disease. By first recognizing the illness, then exploring the potential underlying causes, a holistic nurse is more likely to strike upon a longer-lasting cure. Taking the concept of investigation and discovery a little further, a holistic nurse might then go on to explore in greater detail what could be the cause of stress in the first place. 

There are many common contributing factors to stress, the majority of which aren’t specifically medical problems. For example, stress can be caused by any number of things: a lack of sleep, financial worries, the death of a loved one, emotional or relationship problems or pressures at work, etc. 

Taking this holistic approach to a patient’s heart disease, the nurse would first consider the primary cause (in this case, stress), then look at also addressing the secondary, underlying problems – perhaps by suggesting therapy or counseling.

By contrast, practitioners taking a traditional approach might be inclined to simply look at the patient’s heart disease and diagnose medical or pharmaceutical treatment. In other words, traditional medical care would take a confined, solitary approach rather than considering the bigger picture and underlying causes. This sticking-plaster approach does little to cure the actual problem and instead just offers a temporary solution. 

What is the future for holistic care? 

While holistic care has always had its dissenters, there is a growing recognition within the medical and care industry that illnesses rarely exist on their own and problems can be brought on, influenced or worsened by any number of seemingly unrelated, external factors.

With a growing acceptance and appreciation of the holistic approach, even the staunchest traditional medical practitioners are being forced to at least acknowledge the potential merits of the holistic approach. 

With nuanced and versatile thinking becoming more common in nursing, an increasing number of nurses and doctors are beginning to consider the mental well-being and lifestyle influences of their patients when attempting to cure their ailments. 

The increased acknowledgment and acceptance of alternative therapy 

One need only consider the increased acceptance of treatments like massage, acupuncture, homeopathy, and other alternative therapies in established care procedures to see the inclination towards the idea that a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not always be the best approach. Moreover, these types of therapy are now also nearing mainstream approval by being included in several health insurance plans – a sure sign of their growing popularity and credibility. 

The demand for holistic nurses

Also, Patient-Centered Care has become the latest buzzword in the healthcare industry in recent years – another sign of the broadening of beliefs and acknowledgment that care can (and should) take many forms. Consequently, the demand for nurses with holistic care skills has never been higher. In-home visits and private consultations are also becoming more common as holistic nursing branches out of the traditional medical establishments and begins to attain mainstream acceptance. 

While skilled nurses are always in demand, specialist holistic care nursing vacancies are expected to grow a further 19% by 2022 – assuring a bright future for this branch of the medical and care industry. 

How to pursue a career in holistic care 

In the same way that there’s been an increased acceptance and recognition of holistic care within the established medical and nursing industries, so educational establishments have also begun to appreciate the merits of this more inclusive approach. Consequently, many nursing qualifications now contain exclusive modules and training dedicated specifically to holistic nursing care

With more practicing nurses and doctors following the holistic approach and a growing desire on the part of the public for inclusive medical care, the future does indeed look good for trained holistic nursing staff.

Holistic care – the takeaway

Slowly but surely the world is beginning to wake up to the relationship between physical and mental health and holistic care is the natural extension of both. More nurses than ever are starting to adopt an all-encompassing approach to healthcare and beginning to understand how psychological, spiritual, physical and social influences can affect our well-being.

Holistic nurses don’t just possess the skills to cure patients’ ailments through medicine – they also have the power to improve their quality of life and make a positive impact on their overall health and happiness. This can only be a good thing – both from a patient and practitioner’s perspectives. 





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