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Holistic Nursing: Alternative Care as a Specialty Practice

Alternative health care is on the rise in the United States. One recent survey from the National Institutes of Health found that approximately one-third of Americans have made use of complementary and alternative modalities (CAM) in some way — that includes chiropractic care, yoga, deep breathing and natural remedies. Alternative health care encompasses a wide range of holistic approaches and can be used to address a variety of issues ranging from chronic conditions and stress relief to boosting overall health and mood.

As the costs of traditional health care continue to grow, the health care industry and the government have begun to see the value of focusing on disease prevention. Wellness practices and healthy behaviors continue to be promoted as important parts of self-care. One frequently cited study found that over 630 million Americans spent $12.2 billion out-of-pocket for these resources from 1993 to 1997, and estimated the trend to continue over the following several decades. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 included several provisions that may guide policy toward health care that incorporates alternative and complementary therapies.

Given the rising popularity of alternative health care and CAM therapies, some nurses are embracing a practice that incorporates a mind-and-body approach to patient care. While alternative treatment as an element of holistic nursing practice is a trend that has yet to gain significant public recognition, the idea that health care can involve more than just treating symptoms as they appear is gaining traction. So it’s important to understand the role that holistic nursing will play in the future of health care.

Holism involves recognizing the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit; the unique nature and needs of each individual; and the body’s power to heal itself. Holistic nurses still use and promote conventional treatments, but take an integrative approach to patient care, combining traditional evidence-based practice with CAM according to each patient’s particular situation, lifestyle and needs. To better understand holistic nursing, CAM and alternative methods to health care, it’s important to take a closer look at how nurses adopt a holistic approach and what it means for patients.

What Does a Holistic Approach Look Like in Nursing?

Holistic nurses can practice in a variety of settings, from independent practices to hospitals. Many work for facilities or businesses that integrate CAM with traditional medical care. Some gain certification or licensure in other alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or reflexology. They promote self-care and the importance of diet, exercise and relaxation as essential elements of total-body wellness and healing alongside more conventional treatments and therapies.

According to the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA), the practice of holistic nursing is based upon a solid foundation of several guiding principles. Specifically, it draws from a unique body of knowledge, evidence-based research, defined standards of practice, sophisticated skills, a diversity of modalities and a philosophy that’s rooted in caring and interconnectedness.

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A holistic approach in nursing can encompass a variety of different treatments and can depend on the preferences of each patient and what specifically each nurse has been trained in. Holistic healing techniques and treatments can include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Eastern medicine
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Many other alternative options that may have a considerable impact on patient wellness

The Five Core Values of Holistic Nursing

Holistic nursing is guided by five core values that inform the Standards of Holistic Nursing: Holistic Philosophy and Education; Holistic Ethics, Theories and Research; Holistic Nurse Self-Care; Holistic Communication, Therapeutic Environment and Cultural Competence; and Holistic Caring Process.

To fully appreciate these guiding principles, it is necessary to take a deeper look at what each of them encompasses and how they are represented in practice.

1. Holistic Philosophy and Education

The first of the five core values, Holistic Philosophy and Education, is focused on the understanding that holistic nursing is founded on a commitment to the ideas of education, reflection and knowledge. More specifically, the philosophy of holism is built around the idea that people find meaning, purpose and identity through their connections with others in the community. A holistic education focuses on the fact that in order to connect a person more closely with the world around them, the education needs to start with each individual person, rather than a more conceptual understanding of the human self. After all, each person has unique needs, wants, aspirations and interests.

In addition to focusing on each individual person, the philosophy and education of a holistic nurse recognize that everything in the world exists in a certain harmony with one another. It’s also a philosophy that not only understands but celebrates cultural and natural diversity. 

This philosophical commitment to understanding individuals and the world around them is what lays the foundation for holistic nurses to provide exceptional care for their patients. Holistic nurses who imbue their care with this philosophy are better able to address not only the physical well-being of their patients but also their mental, emotional, spiritual and environmental health because they understand that all of these areas are interconnected.

2. Holistic Ethics, Theories and Research

The philosophical and educational underpinnings of a holistic approach in nursing are taken to the next level with the second of the five core values: Holistic Ethics, Theories and Research. This allows practitioners to gain a more sophisticated understanding of how to practice holism in their day-to-day care. 

Holistic ethics is built around the belief of the unity and integral wholeness of all people. According to the Journal of Holistic Nursing, the crux of ethics rests in this:

“Holistic ethics is not an ethics that is grounded or judged either in the act performed or in the distant consequences of the act, but rather in the conscious evolution of an enlightened individual of raised consciousness who performs the act.”

By investigating and studying the theories and research that informs holistic ethics, nurses may be better equipped to provide treatment to their patients.

3. Holistic Nurse Self-Care

If holistic nurses are going to provide the best possible care to their patients, they should also look inward and make sure they’re caring for themselves. The third core value — Holistic Nurse Self-Care — reminds practitioners to undertake healing within themselves. According to the AHNA, by practicing regular self-care, holistic nurses will be better equipped to manage stress in their work and home environments.

Self-care encompasses a broad range of practices. Holistic nurses can incorporate self-awareness, self-care, self-healing and self-responsibility into their daily lives through activities ranging from good nutrition and exercise to mind-body practices and lifelong learning. 

“When we get frustrated, we contract,” Carole Ann Drick, PhD, RN, AHN-BC, told Nurse.com. “Instead, we want to be part of expansion and flow. I really think this starts with self-care and self-reflection.”

Aromatherapy has proven to be one particularly effective method of self-care. According to a 2013 study, aromatherapy was shown to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality in patients. This holistic healing treatment makes use of plant extracts and essential oils to improve mental, physical and emotional well-being.

In addition to aromatherapy, nurses can practice self-care through meditation or yoga. Those who regularly practice yoga tend to have lower cortisol levels, which translates to lower levels of stress-related anxiety and depression, according to a 2016 study.

Finally, nurses need to make sure they practice what they preach when it comes to nutrition. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains — and drinking plenty of water — is a key component of self-care for holistic nurses.

4. Holistic Communication, Therapeutic Environment and Cultural Competence

Communication is an integral part of navigating successful outcomes in health care, and that is no different with holistic nursing. Core value four, Holistic Communication, Therapeutic Environment and Cultural Competence, places an emphasis on nurses engaging with their patients to determine, set and reach goals together. By being on the same page from the outset, they will be better able to reach those health and healing benchmarks. 

It’s important that holistic nurses pay attention to how they communicate. A holistic communication style places an emphasis on taking things like cultural diversity into consideration. When establishing open lines of communication, holistic nurses need to use techniques like coaching, appreciative inquiry and motivational interviewing in order to arrive at the best possible destination. 

This core value also focuses squarely on understanding that all patients, regardless of racial or ethnic heritage, have the same need for compassionate and understanding health care services. Put another way, holistic nurses are equipped with a deep empathy and sensitivity toward all their patients and are prepared to ensure they address health care as a human right.

5. Holistic Caring Process

The fifth core value, the Holistic Caring Process, gets at the root of what holistic nursing hopes to achieve. Specifically, it focuses on utilizing assessment and therapeutic care techniques to ensure patients are receiving the best care possible and that nurses can address client patterns, problems and needs in an atmosphere of caring.

The Holistic Caring Process is an extension of a strong relationship between nurses and their patients. This give-and-take will create a smoother path to promoting health, healing and overall wellness. 

Holistic Nursing vs Traditional Nursing

The five core values lay the foundation for holistic nursing, but how do they look when put into practice? And what is the tangible difference between holistic and traditional nursing?

Holistic nursing brings in knowledge and practices outside the typical scope of nursing practice such as psychological, spiritual, social, interpersonal and biological skills that address the mind, body and spirit. Put simply, holistic nurses can incorporate techniques such as massage therapy, hypnosis and acupuncture as part of their treatment plans — it all depends on the unique needs of each patient, which adheres to one of the guiding principles of holistic nursing: care should be individualized.

Another significant difference between holistic and traditional nurses is their training. Holistic nurses are taught to create a calming, stress-free environment and to work through emotional obstacles by finding inner peace. They are also focused on promoting wellness techniques beyond nutrition, medicine and exercise.

Above all else, holistic nurses have the freedom to pursue innovative treatment methods that traditional nurses may not have the training to explore. This latitude provides a broader range of patient outcomes and treatment plans.

The Path to Holistic Nursing

Anybody wondering whether alternative and complementary modalities are becoming more widely accepted in the field of medicine need look no further than the considerable growth in demand for holistic nurses. According to the AHNA, it’s expected that the Holistic Nursing specialty will grow nearly 20% by 2022. This trend reflects the overall demand for health care professionals and the fact that CAM and holism are becoming more widely accepted not just in the medical community, but in society as a whole.

The first step to making an impact in the health care industry and in patients’ lives is to develop a strong educational foundation, through programs like the online RN to BSN or online MSN program at Spring Hill College.

The online RN to BSN program is ideal for students who value small class sizes and the flexibility to choose from three different tracks. The 100% online format fits seamlessly into the lives of students and the program can be completed in as few as two years, leaving graduates with skills such as health care policy, leadership and management.

The online MSN program at Spring Hill College is for nurses interested in taking the next step in their careers. The online format creates flexibility that is perfect for those looking to work around their schedules, and its challenging and rigorous curriculum will help prepare graduates to sit for national certification exams and for leadership roles.

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