The importance of holistic methods in nursing

There is a lot more to humans than bones, tissues, and blood. Also, keeping all those things healthy depends on a great deal more than just avoiding infections and injuries.

Our level of understanding about the complexities of the human body is growing all the time. Medical science is continuously improving our ability to predict, diagnose, monitor, and treat many common illnesses.

However, one of the most significant developments in healthcare is the renewed appreciation that we are all more than the sum total of our physical anatomy. That means healthcare providers and nurses, in particular, are increasingly using holistic methods and introducing patient-centered care.

In a way, medicine has come full circle. The earliest physicians blamed all sorts of external or internal ‘forces’ for their patients’ ailments. For example, someone having a fit was possessed by demons, or a serious illness could result from a curse. All sorts of charms, chants, and even dances were used to bring about a cure.

Then Florence Nightingale became the first truly holistic nurse. She felt care should not just address physical bodies but also minds and spirits. Consequently, she found ways to keep patients happy and promote optimal health, including giving them access to fresh air and sunshine whenever possible.

Over time, the focus swung resolutely towards the patient’s physiology. Their medical history, physical examination, and test results were used to create a clear pathology and treatment pathway. Medical science was largely about ‘cold hard facts’.

In recent times, there has been a growing appreciation that treating someone’s biological needs in isolation is not enough; instead, a more holistic approach must be taken to secure the best outcomes.

What are holistic methods in nursing?

Holistic medicine has become bound up in the view that it always involves complementary interventions and theories, such as using acupuncture, massage, or meditation to treat physical ailments.

In many situations, it may well mean that a patient’s treatment regimen should include things that support their emotional wellbeing and a healthier lifestyle. However, holistic nursing methods are still firmly based on modern medical science and incorporate mainstream healthcare methods too.

In essence, holistic healthcare means taking into account the whole person, not just their medical condition. It basically involves nursing professionals ensuring that patients’ physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual conditions are investigated, noted, and improved. It also includes environmental factors, and in some situations, the views and observations of family members are taken into account.

That would start by asking more questions during the initial diagnosis period. These would be ones that go beyond the most obvious biological facts, taking into account the patient’s current mental health, lifestyle, and any cultural or religious preferences in particular.

Using a more holistic overview, a healthcare professional can then ensure that treatment and therapies are based on a more comprehensive program of repair, rehabilitation, and recovery.

For nurses who specialize in holistic methods, this may be a comprehensive range of complementary health management options.

For nurses in general practice, it may involve spending more time with the patient and developing a treatment program that they are willing and able to fully engage in to get the best possible outcome.

There is overwhelming evidence that this approach may result in a faster, better, and more sustainable recovery. This article will explore why that is later.

How can nurses take a holistic approach?

One of the barriers to patient-centered care—and taking an individual’s ‘mind and spirit’ into account—is that modern healthcare settings tend to be high-pressure, busy, and task-oriented. The emphasis is still on getting essential facts as swiftly as possible.

Providing holistic care involves nurses creating a more meaningful relationship with their patients. Instead of simply monitoring their symptoms and looking for signs of improvement or decline using technology and anecdotal evidence, nurses also invest in developing an even better understanding of the patients’ needs, influences, and experiences.

That requires time, patience, and empathy. Nurses specializing in holistic healthcare—or who take a holistic approach—must constantly be alert to the mental and emotional status of their patients, as well as any spiritual, cultural, or environmental influences and insights.

Even when time allows for that, it is not always as straightforward as it sounds, not least as patients may not always be willing or able to give relevant and wide-ranging information.

For example, a patient in extreme pain or distress may be reticent to talk about their mental and emotional state leading up to the illness or injury. There could be a degree of embarrassment to overcome, or even patients feeling they are being asked too many ‘personal’ questions.

That requires that nurses be trained in holistic methods of nursing and the best way to progress comprehensive assessments. They also need to have highly advanced communication skills. It includes constructive listening—knowing what questions to ask and how and when to ask them—and also reading non-verbal cues.

It can be especially challenging for nurses working in the increasing number of healthcare practices using telehealth solutions. There is not the same ease of reading someone’s body language and tone when the consultation is taking place remotely.

At least you will be confident and comfortable using medical technology for communication and collaboration; however, if you choose to do second-degree nursing programs online, the University of Indianapolis accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program provides valuable insights on how holistic health and assessment of individuals and families can be supported, how to develop cultural competencies, and an appreciation of complementary as well as mainstream medicine.

You will also already have a high degree of comfort with digital healthcare liaison and learning through an online qualification program.

The advantages of holistic healthcare

Being a holistic nurse, or a general nurse who takes time to develop a more meaningful relationship with their patients, can enable that healthcare professional to get a far clearer understanding of their patients’ needs and preferences. It gives the nurse a clearer and more wide-ranging perspective and greater confidence in making decisions.

They can then draw in a range of complementary healthcare options and general lifestyle advice and guidance to help their patients make better choices about their own recovery or illness management.

From a patient perspective, having their emotional, mental, spiritual, or environmental needs taken into account can be incredibly important. Holistic healthcare can make patients feel less like they are on a ‘medical conveyor belt’. Instead, they are being listened to in a respectful and empathetic way, and their values and experiences are being taken fully into account.

They are also being introduced to health protection and improvement options that they may not have previously tried beyond mainstream treatments and therapies.

Ultimately, though, the main benefit of a holistic approach to healthcare is that diagnosis and treatment could be more accurate and effective.

To illustrate this, imagine a patient with liver function issues secretly abusing alcohol. If their mental and emotional dependency is not first addressed, any treatments to repair their liver could be undone in the near future.

Another extreme example is someone presenting at hospitals with a series of bad injuries who is self-harming and in dire need of help with their mental health. That holistic approach and competency in assessment could save their lives.

A more common illustration of why ‘the whole person’ matters would be someone asking for help with insomnia. All the medications and devices that could be prescribed may be unnecessary if the underlying cause is severe anxiety or stress. Finding a way to relieve stress naturally could be all that is required.

Keep in mind that stress can also play a role in digestive health challenges. If that is acknowledged and addressed, the chances of the medical treatment being successful are considerably increased.

As a last example of why a holistic approach matters in nursing, a patient presenting with a respiratory illness may be living in unhealthy conditions or working in a situation compromising their air quality. If the nurse only focuses on the symptoms and physiology of the patient, they may miss an important detail about the cause of the issue.

Better outcomes from holistic methods

When we approach patient care holistically, focusing on the overall well-being and taking into account various aspects of the individual’s health, it not only improves the accuracy of the diagnosis but also leads to more tailored and effective treatment.

Also, helping someone take better care of their emotional and mental health can enable the patient to better engage with treatments, including therapies needed for recovery from a severe injury or illness.

The patient may feel more involved in decision-making and more in control of their own progress when the nurse has demonstrated a high degree of understanding and empathy and treated them very well as an individual.

When self-managing chronic, long-term health conditions, patients can also be supported by offering holistic nursing methods. They can explore alternative treatments safely and under medical guidance to find options that make their pain or discomfort a little easier.

A holistic approach to treating dementia is particularly valuable, as the patient’s individuality is respected, and they, too, are helped to access a wider range of therapies that may help them live better with their condition.

Taking a holistic approach could also result in a nurse finding lifestyle or environment fixes and changes their patient can make, resulting in a far better outcome. For example, a patient facing economic challenges may need help accessing better living conditions or food so their health can improve.

In effect, holistic methods give patients more power and responsibility for their own diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. With lots of relevant information, nursing professionals can guide and encourage them on more self-care and self-regulation issues.

Optimism and health outcomes

Using holistic methods in nursing can simply revolve around finding ways for a patient to feel more optimistic. Can keeping patients happier and more positive really improve their recovery?

There has been a lot of interest in mapping how a positive attitude affects our ability to prevent illness and recover more quickly, as well as its impact on health in general. The general consensus is that a good mental attitude is invaluable.

It could be that people who are content and optimistic are more likely to make wise decisions about their health and steer clear of habits that can lead to illness. Someone who is emotionally stable is also clearly more likely to engage with treatment programs fully and to follow the advice of medical professionals like nurses.

However, there is increasing evidence that it goes much further than that, and physical health improvements can come as a direct result of a positive attitude. It could be hormonal or just a fundamental improvement in your body’s cellular health.

Optimism has been linked to better outcomes in the treatment of cancer and heart disease, for example. Patients who are depressed or generally pessimistic may physically decline more.

A lot more research into this is needed. However, it does mean that, at the very least, nurses should always try to give their patients hope of some kind as part of a holistic approach to healthcare.

The American Holistic Nurses Association

To some degree, all nursing professionals need to take a patient-centered and holistic approach to anyone in their care. A patient’s individuality, lifestyle, and preferences should be respected as standard practice within all healthcare settings.

However, for some people in the field of nursing, the core of all healthcare is finding the right balance between someone’s physical, spiritual, psychological, and social features. In other words, they prefer to become specialist holistic nurses.

For this reason, the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) was formed. This organization defines a holistic nurse as someone who nurtures “wholeness, peace, and healing by valuing each person’s physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental strengths and challenges and honoring each person’s values, health beliefs, and health experience.”

Professionals within the association could work in mainstream healthcare settings. However, many specialize in complementary, alternative, or integrative healing nursing. So, this could involve providing such treatments as homeopathy, mediation, guided breathing, massage, and yoga, for example.

Mental health and holistic methods in nursing

To some degree, the movement towards a more holistic approach in healthcare is a result of growing awareness of how big an issue mental health is.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that over one in five adults in the US has some form of mental illness. The services to treat mental and emotional issues are not necessarily keeping pace, and there are a multitude of reasons why people don’t ask for help. 

It gives nurses the added impetus to use holistic methods and take account of their patients’ mental health during any and all contact with healthcare providers.

Yet more evidence shows why patient-centered care and holistic nursing are likely to become even more important.