Whanganui DHB natural therapies trial courageous

Warm and fuzzy media headlines are the order of the day when Police dogs or All Blacks visit hospital patients. Try introducing a trial of natural therapies like Whanganui District Health Board is doing and the headlines become accusatory and dismissive.

A range of therapies including Reiki, Christian prayer, Maori healing and massage will be on offer to Whanganui hospital staff over a three-month period.  As far as I know, none of these therapies is claiming to cure disease or mend broken bones.

Despite that two District Health Board members have deemed the interventions hocus pocus or witchcraft.  Their preference is for more effort to go into improving existing evidence-based medicine, which has been a mainstay of the biomedical model for the last few decades.  An effort to ensure, as far as possible, that medical interventions do no harm.

There’s no doubt that medical science has been an outstanding contributor to our world.  It has offered surgical interventions to stitch us back together when we get injured. We can have limbs amputated and some sewn back on, organs removed or altered if they’re causing problems.  Pharmaceuticals are used to remix body chemistry so that pain is managed and the course of a disease can be changed or sometimes stopped altogether.

We can be thankful for these advances, however, the biomedical model is just one way of seeing our existence that, because of its widespread use, has pushed other worldviews to the sidelines.

One of the challenges to this mode of thinking is that people get sick within their own context or worldview.  Within the family, culture or belief systems they have lived in for their whole lives.  Their world is shaped by that context and meaning is made within it.

Professor Elizabeth MacKinlay says spirituality is about meaning in life and relationship and as such is a critical part of what it is to be human.  She calls this formulation of spirituality ultimate meaning and suggests it is mediated by the environment, relationships, art and religion.  Just because we have grown a medical system that, on the whole, ignores spirituality doesn’t mean it’s not there and desperately in need of tending in the health system.

Most of us are realistic about the limits of medical science and know that our ultimate destination is death.  Knowing this, the challenge is to make meaning in the light of our mortality.  By this, I do not mean fending off death by constructing ideas about an afterlife or spending outrageous money trying to invent procedures at both ends of existence to maintain life.

Instead, we could seek to understand how people make meaning even if this challenges the dominance of the medical model, which seems to have taken the place of a powerful, all-knowing God that many say they don’t believe in anymore.

Funnily enough, those All Blacks and Police dogs are also offering an alternative spiritual therapy by bringing healing presence into people’s lives.  Presence makes a difference although we’re not too sure yet how or why it works so well.  That will come if we work together in the healing process and stop trying to shut out unfamiliar worldviews.  It seems to me that Whanganui has courageously made a start.


This trial was subsequently discontinued. Clive Solomon’s point of view about it all, Snake oil, water and acid – a very sad mix was published by The NZ Skeptic’s website.

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