Traditionally, health professionals attempt to motivate people to change certain behaviors to prevent disease. Primary attention is given to controlling risk factors and the motivation for change is fear of premature death. Unhealthy habits are identified and individuals are encouraged to engage in behavior change programs that reward them for substituting healthier behaviors.This approach to health promotion is an extension of the “biomedical model” which has its roots in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. As with all traditional Western science, the biomedical model is based on classical Newtonian physics and Cartesian reductionism which portray the universe as a great machine whose inert components can be understood only by reducing them to smaller and smaller separate parts. According to this “worldview” there is no purpose, life or spirituality in matter and only phenomenon that are measurable and quantifiable are valid and worthy of study. The human body is seen as a sophisticated machine, disease is a mechanical malfunction of the machine and the health professional is the “repair person” who is called upon to “fix” the machine.
Re-evaluating The Assumptions
Recent developments in the sciences are challenging virtually all of the old assumptions of this 17th century worldview. From this information a new worldview is emerging and a new set of assumptions about why people get ill and how they heal is developing. These assumptions are based on findings from such widely divergent fields as quantum physics, psychoneuroimmunology, biology, anthropology and consciousness research that together point us towards a more holistic, ecological view of the universe.
We have learned that matter is not composed of tiny separate building blocks, but is in reality a dynamic network of interconnected “particle/waves” that have no existence if isolated by themselves. In addition, “psychoneuroimmunology” has shown us that human beings are much more than just an assortment of mechanical parts forming a sophisticated machine. In fact, a growing body of research supports that unlike machines humans have personalities, thoughts, feelings, and emotions all of which can powerfully impact our immune system and affect our resistance to illness and our ability to heal.
Implications For Programming
This research compels us to broaden our focus to consider a wide range of psychological, social and spiritual factors that appear to have as much if not more influence on our health than the traditional biomedical risk factors for disease. Some of these “supportive factors for health” are listed alongside the traditional biomedical risk factors for disease in Table 1.
As we move from a biomedical “Newtonian” view of health to a more holistic “quantum” view, it is important for health professionals to rethink the philosophy and design of traditional health promotion programs based primarily on risk-factor reduction. The major tenets of the traditional health promotion model are contrasted with those of a more holistic approach in Table 2.
Our challenge is to reinvent our programming to integrate the new information emerging from the field of holistic health. Some ideas for modifying traditional programming are presented in Table 3. In addition, new programs that acknowledge the interconnectedness of relationship, work, community and health issues need to be developed. Furthermore the images, language and artwork used in marketing pieces and educational programs must also reflect the new holistic information and themes.
Reinventing The Profession
We have the opportunity to support people’s health and human needs in a more compassionate and effective way. Instead of focusing on controlling isolated symptomatic illnesses or behaviors (hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, overeating, under-exercising) we can help people explore the interconnectedness of these health issues within the larger context of their lives, enabling them to heal their “symptoms” while also developing a deeper understanding of the underlying life struggles that these symptoms represent.
As with any paradigm shift, moving towards a more “holistic” health promotion can cause anxiety for individuals who are comfortable with the status quo. The thought of talking to people about health problems in relation to social oppression, isolation, childhood trauma, job satisfaction and purpose in life can create apprehension among those trained only in biomedical approaches. But perhaps the greatest challenge will be the way holistic health promotion encourages us to make ourselves vulnerable, equal allies to our clients by exploring and healing our own lives at a level never demanded in the traditional biomedical model. Finding ways to support each other professionally during this difficult transition will help make this a powerful and rewarding transformation for everyone involved.