Persons not diseases

People choose to explore natural therapies for many different reasons. One of the main ones given by the clients I see in my work as a Bach flower practitioner is the wish to be valued as a ‘whole person’ whose psychology and life circumstances are unique. Even if their orthodox medical treatment has been successful on a physical level, they often feel that they have been have labelled as ‘just another case’ of the condition in question, being managed according to a set protocol, and that staff lacked either the time or the interest to look beyond their diseased part.

It would be a great mistake to reject the ‘disease-centred’ model which prevails in modern medicine, for this has yielded huge advances in knowledge about the causes, prevention and treatment of specific disorders. And it is good to see mainstream healthcare considering lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise and stress management, which may reduce the need for drugs and surgery. But this is not enough for people who want to explore the personal context of their illness in more depth, which is why they may turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the ‘holistic healing’ approach.

One of the basic principles of this approach is the focus on persons rather than diseases. The Bach flower system, as originally formulated, exemplifies this – Dr Edward Bach advocated ignoring the medical diagnosis when selecting remedies, and focusing purely on the sufferer’s current state of mind. Involving the patient, or client, as a partner in this process is empowering and therapeutic in itself.

But, as CAM becomes more widely accepted and integrated with orthodox medicine, there is a risk of the person-centred approach being replaced by the ‘one size fits all’ method of giving the same mixture to everyone with a particular condition. This may reflect a wish to appear more ‘scientific’, or be done to save the time and trouble of making an individual assessment of each case. A couple of examples, again involving the Bach flower system, will illustrate the trend.

In a UK chemist’s shop I saw an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ made up of three remedies: Crab Apple (for body image problems), Cherry Plum (for loss of emotional control) and Chestnut Bud (for those who continually repeat the same mistakes). One or more of these remedies might certainly be appropriate for someone with an eating disorder, but so might several others: Vine (for over-control), Rock Water (for perfectionism and self-denial) and Pine (for self-blame) come to mind, but any of the 38 flowers could be indicated for different individuals.

A search for Bach flower remedies in the medical literature shows that a number of academic researchers have tried to evaluate the system by prescribing a standard mixture of remedies for the condition under study. That they mostly find no advantage over placebo is hardly surprising, because they have not respected an essential feature of this therapy, namely individualized treatment in which clients themselves have choice and control.