An Essential Point in the Health-Care Debate | Sojourners

An Essential Point in the Health-Care Debate

As debates rage over the proposed health-care reform (which I strongly support), I believe many politicians, activists, religious leaders, and ideologues are missing an essential point. We need a complete overhaul in the way medical and pharmaceutical professionals perceive biology and the role of medicine. This overhaul will not occur unless doctors and other medical professionals stop viewing the human person as a machine that can be fixed only through constant use of drugs and procedures.

In 1982, in his prophetic book The Turning Point - Science, Society, and The Rising Culture, physicist Fritjof Capra stated that in modern science

The human body is regarded as a machine that can be analyzed in terms of its parts; disease is seen as the malfunctioning of biological mechanisms which are studied from the point of view of cellular and molecular biology; the doctor's role is to intervene, either physically or chemically, to correct the malfunctioning of a specific mechanism.

Consequently, many medical professionals have lost sight of the whole person. Diseases, conventional wisdom shows, have physical, mental, and cultural consequences. Yet it seems that medical professionals disregard this complex interaction of any illness. For instance, an HIV/AIDS patient will perhaps face emotional burdens that may often outweigh the physical pain, but doctors only address the physiological symptoms and neglect the patient's emotional status. The ability to heal the whole person has been forgotten, and perhaps even lost.

This neglected ability to heal is the result of the training medical professionals receive in school. The movie Patch Adams, which is based on a true story, is a perfect illustration of the battles "holistic" physicians have to face to be taken seriously in the medical profession that views them as less scientific. Played by Robin Williams, Dr. Patch Adams went to great lengths to make his patients laugh and have a good time while at the hospital sick with sometimes terminal illnesses. By evoking laughter, Adams inspired self-confidence and hope in his patients that they could indeed overcome their illnesses, and many of them did. The "holistic" doctor perceived his patients not as machines, but as living, organic systems that require more than chemicals to be healed.

Similarly, Jesus healed the sick by being attentive to the sick person's ailment, mental and emotional status, and cultural milieu. Renowned Harvard theologian Harvey Cox argues "that the mobs of people who thronged Jesus did not seek him out to hear his message. They came because he had gained a reputation as a healer." Jesus was ahead of his time in rejecting the ancient idea that sickness was a punishment for evil. So the sick, who were marginalized in ancient society, sought this non-judgmental Jewish peasant for healing. Many of Jesus' "patients" looked for someone with compassion, someone who would understand their plight and not curse them. Jesus was this person, and his attention to assuaging their emotional and psychological pain may have led to many of them curing their own illnesses.

The medical profession could also learn from the emerging occupational therapy field. Occupational therapy is a holistic form of therapy that focuses on treating the whole person (emotionally, physically, psychologically, and culturally) by concentrating on the rehabilitation goals expressed by the patients. Occupational therapists empower their patients by heavily involving them in their own treatment.

Many months ago, I accompanied my wife, an occupational therapist, to a lecture at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, where the speaker was Dr. Frank Kronenberg. As a non-occupational therapist, I expected to be bored at the event, but to my surprise Kronenberg, an occupational therapist practicing among the marginalized in South Africa, spoke as a holistic healer. He told the room full of occupational therapy students that without passion for helping the whole human being, there could be no chance of successful treatment.

I have heard far too many accounts from family members, friends, and strangers of how doctors treat them as if they were nothing but potential financial gain. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries encourage doctors to continue looking upon their patients as nothing but machines in need of a quick oil change. It is, to say the least, a vicious business in need of reform. Failing to be attentive to the whole human being will lead to a health-care reform devoid of true reform. Patients are subjects in need of holistic healing.

portrait-cesar-baldelomarCésar J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site ( and read his blogs at

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