Healing in our time

I have often thought that one of the less attractive traits of various professional bodies and institutions is the deeply ingrained suspicion and outright hostility which can exist towards anything unorthodox or unconventional. I suppose it is inevitable that something which is different should arouse strong feelings on the part of the majority whose conventional wisdom is being challenged or, in a more social sense, whose way of life and customs are being insulted by something rather alien. I suppose, too, that human nature is such that we are frequently prevented from seeing that what is taken for today's unorthodoxy is probably going to be tomorrow's convention. Perhaps we just have to accept it is God's will that the unorthodox individual is doomed to years of frustration, ridicule and failure in order to act out his role in the scheme of things, until his day arrives and mankind is ready to receive his message; a message which he probably finds hard to explain himself, but which he knows comes from a far deeper source than conscious thought.

The renowned 16th century healer, Paracelsus, was just such an individual. He is probably remembered more for his fight against orthodoxy than for his achievements in the medical field. As a result of his unorthodox approach to medicine in his time he was equated with the damnable Dr. Faustus. Of the barbers, surgeons and pharmacists he complained that ''they begrudge the honour I won healing Princes and noblemen and they say my powers come from the devil.'' And yet in his day and age he was operating as a one man British Medical Association, criticizing the abuse amongst pharmacists and attacking the quack remedies - vipers' blood, ''mummy'' powder, unicorn horn, and so on. In 1527, by an act of which I am sure today's younger doctors would be proud, he burnt the famous textbook of medieval medicine, the Canon of Avicenna, which became a symbol of rebellion against pedantry and unthinking acceptance of ancient doctrines.

Paracelsus believed that the good doctor's therapeutic success largely depends on his ability to inspire the patient with confidence and to mobilize his will to health.

I know that there are a considerable number of doctors who operate by these kinds of basic principles, because several have written to me, but nevertheless the modern science of medicine still tends to be based, as George Engel writes, ''on the notion of the body as a machine, of disease as the consequence of breakdown of the machine, and of the doctor's task as repair of the machine.'' By concentrating on smaller and smaller fragments of the body modern medicine perhaps loses sight of the patient as a whole human being, and by reducing health to mechanical functioning it is no longer able to deal with the phenomenon of healing.

And here I come back to my original point. The term ''healer'' is viewed with suspicion and the concepts of health and healing are probably not generally discussed enough in medical schools. But to reincorporate the notion of healing into the practice of medicine does not necessarily mean that medical science will have to be less scientific.

No one of course could be stupid enough to deny the enormous benefits which the advances of medical science in this century have conferred upon us all. But nevertheless the fact remains that contemporary medicine as a whole tends to be fascinated by the objective, statistical, computerized approach to the healing of the sick. If disease is regarded as an objective problem isolated from all personal factors, then surgery plus more and more powerful drugs must be the answer. Already the cost of drugs supplied to patients by the National Health Service alone is well over (STR)2,000 million a year. It is frightening how dependent upon drugs we are all becoming and how easy it is for doctors to prescribe them as the universal panacea for our ills.

The last word on this subject remains with Paracelsus, whose name should be synonymous with the common health, which I have been asked to toast this evening. With all the conviction of a man who follows his inner voice he made a desperate supplication that ''would we humans knew our hearts in truth, nothing on earth would be impossible for us.''

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