Film Review: H E A L
Netflix are to be commended on making a positive and life-affirming film on the power of the holistic or whole person approach in medicine. In this well-made documentary, luminaries such as Deepak Chopra make an excellent case for the body/mind/spirit, whole person approach in its various forms. Moving personal stories provide strong anecdotal evidence for this perspective and the case made for regarding and treating patients as much more than the sum of their organs and tissues is irrefutable in my opinion. Supporters of alternative medical approaches will be heartened that a positive spin on holistic medicine has been intelligently and articulately presented in the mainstream media.
Unfortunately this documentary is deeply flawed because its makers could not resist the temptation to make it a case of ‘either or’ when it comes to choosing between scientific, deterministic, mechanistic medicine and the holistic approach. Scientific medicine doesn’t get a look in here other than to be recognised as useful in trauma or to be compared unfavourably to the holistic therapies presented. This is dangerously misleading. As a doctor I have been blown away by many great advances in conventional medicine: In the 20th century, we finally found answers to killer diseases such as meningitis, pneumonia and TB. Small pox was permanently eradicated and the horrible scourge of many centuries, syphilis, was put to the sword by one injection of penicillin.* All these are but a few examples of illnesses where conventional medicine is mandatory as the first line of action.
Whole person medicine includes conventional medicine and a competent holistic doctor is sometimes obliged to use orthodox drugs and surgery as the first resort. In many non-life threatening conditions, it is quite reasonable and natural to try a holistic approach to stimulate the body’s natural ability to heal itself and always retain an orthodox approach as a safety net. In many other situations – including cancer and other serious diseases – the two approaches can be combined synergistically for the benefit of the patient. Alas, we only see this once in H E A L where a patient with lymphoma receives conventional oncological treatment but also uses creative visualisation to aid the healing process and attempt to modulate and enhance the chemotherapy (something I consider entirely plausible). Only here does the programme endorse what I would consider responsible whole person medicine. For most of the film the two approaches are presented as antithetical to each other making the main message of the film unacceptable to a medical doctor who firmly supports a whole person approach.
* My friend, Arnold Brown, a comedian of Glaswegian origin, is averse to Scots being stereotyped as heavy drinkers. ‘Thank goodness, Alexander Fleming sobered up long enough to invent penicillin’ he has quipped. ‘Instead of noticing how a fungus inhibited the growth of bacteria after an accident in the lab, an English doctor might just have cleaned up the mess! Another coffee for Alexander!’