Therapy or Therapist?

By Tom Ahern, BVSc, MRCVS

When delegating the responsibility of health care to natural therapies, western or eastern medicine, or complementary therapies, should the first concern be ‘which therapy', or ‘which therapist'?

Most people are aware that divisions in attitude between the advocates of western medicine and complementary or alternative medicine have existed for nearly a century. In more recent times however, with many people now opting for the alternatives, there appear to be just as many divisions between differing branches of alternative or complementary medicines. Owners will often advocate one form of therapy over another and of course the choice can be extensive. For example, do I take my horse, with a bad back, to the physiotherapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, trigger point therapist, touch therapist or other? Strangely enough most therapists if questioned will advocate their own approach in preference to others.

But how different are these approaches?

The boundaries that separate these disciplines are of course by no means clear cut and at times can be extremely blurred. Often it seems that the only differences in specific treatment modalities are the interpretations and explanations that accompany them. With respect to drug therapy some ‘natural medicines' have been commonly used in the practise of western medicine for centuries. Many ‘drugs' or medicines are in fact just derivatives of naturally occurring compounds. Another example is when eastern medical practitioners use meridians or energy lines for diagnostic and treatment purposes. These seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to the routes of neural or nerve tissues referred to in western medicine as the autonomic nervous system.

A more common view would suggest that western medicine is often seen to empower the practitioner to the extent that he or she can control natural processes. The power to heal! 'WE will ‘treat' the infection, destroy those abnormal cells, remove that tumour and cure the patient. Single handed we will SAVE YOU!'

In actual fact, no drug therapy or treatment can succeed without the assistance or approval of the body's own healing processes. Antibiotics for example can reduce the numbers of infectious bacteria to the point where the body is no longer overwhelmed. The body itself, or more correctly the immune system, can then take over. Antibiotics act only as an assistant to the body's immune or defence systems. Drugs often mask the unpleasant symptoms of a disease (e.g. pain and nausea) whilst the body itself gets to work to combat the destructive processes of the disease. Surgeons remove, repair and replace organs and tissues and then wait - for what? For the body to heal the incised edges of wounds, produce new bone cells to heal a fracture, replace the blood lost during surgery, reproduce new white cells after a transplant, hopefully accept a new organ, develop an immune response to a virus, etc.

And what then of the approach of the natural or complementary therapist? The basic principle of ‘natural therapy' is that NATURE HEALS rather than the therapist. There is an understanding that within nature there are balances that if maintained promote health and if disturbed can do the opposite. Natural medicine seeks to restore the balances.

Maintaining good health is of course a balancing act: Enough physical exercise to prevent systems becoming fixed, stagnant or atrophied but not too much as this can lead to overload and thence increase the rate of tissue wear and tear or degradation. Enough food of balanced proportions to maintain mobility and good health but not too much (obesity) or too little (anorexia).

In actual fact, no drug therapy or treatment can succeed without the assistance or approval of the body's own healing processes.


Doctors of western medicine treat pathogenic bacterial infections with antibiotics whilst natural therapists worry at the numbers of useful bacteria being destroyed in the same process. Often in western medicine treatments, whether for pain relief, anxiety, depression or over activity (as in hyperactive disorders), are based on treating the symptoms of the disorder only, with little concern for the cause - a little of a ‘keep the customer happy' attitude. It is also easy to become disillusioned when one hears that much of the moneys for research in western medicine are provided by drug companies that look to gain only if a chemical agent or drug is involved. And of course there must also be a big enough market (profit) for the product to be investigated.


In reality though this is by no means a one-sided argument. There are many natural or complementary therapists who claim to ‘cure', apparently overlooking the body's role in healing. They can also be found treating conditions that are poorly or on occasions completely misdiagnosed. At other times their overzealous use of either physical therapies or natural medicines can do more harm than good. There are others who fail to draw a line of distinction between symptomatic and primary treatments. There are also companies that exclusively market ‘natural health products' and ‘natural medicines' who are more interested in gaining market share than in the efficacy of their products.


Natural therapies promote the idea of a balanced system and this should of course apply to both the therapists and their treatment modalities. In reality though, aside from some who have mostly economic and self interests at heart, there are countless thousands of therapists of both the conventional and complementary kind who are legitimately doing all they can to promote a state good health amongst their clientele.


There are also many who practise western medicine who now prescribe to the concept of maintaining a natural balance. The use of, in particular, antibiotics and many other chemical compounds is now being limited or discouraged as it is now well recognised that overuse has brought with it its own problems. Another very healthy trend of late is one where therapists, including doctors of veterinary and human medicine, are studying and combining different forms of therapy - both conventional and complementary. The incidence of referring between practitioners and therapists is also on the increase.

Then, in this ever changing therapeutic environment: Which is more important, the therapy or the therapist?

Answer: Both, of course, but without the ‘right therapist' one is unlikely to receive the most appropriate therapy or therapies.

Then who is the right therapist?

Which is more important, the therapy or the therapist?

Answer: The person who puts the patients' best interests first and their own last!

Unfortunately there are some who see medical practise as a means of improving their personal wealth and status, rather than improving the status of their patients' health. In their defence, everybody of course needs to make a living … but what about that BALANCE we keep referring to?

How can one improve one's chances of achieving a favourable outcome when seeking treatment?

Answer: By choosing the right therapist.

See how much of the following you can recognise in your practitioner or therapist.

A dedicated practitioner will prescribe to the following. The single most important recognisable characteristic should be one of a profound sense of ‘humility':

Practitioners need to be humble enough …

(i) to realise that they are not the healers, just assistants to the healer and the healing processes. Their treatments may be of man's creation but the healer and the healing forces are not. Remember no one can help a person or animal whose systems or psyche are either incapable of being helped or unwilling to be helped.

(ii) to discuss health issues with their patients in a manner and language that the patient can understand, rather than exclusively using medical jargon to either boost their sense of self importance or to hide their inadequacies. An adequate explanation never takes too long!

(iii) to accept and admit that they are not always successful and that their ‘failures‘ are also part of their process of learning.

(iv) to accept that they don't and will never know all! Whichever treatment is the most applicable today, in 100 years will most probably be merely a part of medical history.

(v) to not denigrate and humiliate persons who choose to practise other forms of medicine, whether natural or conventional, just because they are not one of their ‘herd'. Everyone and every therapy has something to offer. No need to bury one's head in one's special patch of sand - advancement comes through investigation and discussions with others of one's own and other disciplines. This is supposed to be the way of science.

(vi) to be prepared to acknowledge the skills of others and therefore to be both willing and prepared to refer their patients on when their own efforts are not enough or are no longer applicable. The best practitioner is often the individual who surrounds himself or herself with the best - in essence playing two roles as both a therapist and a guide through referral. These practitioners are not egotists.

(vii) to realise that it's not always about healing and curing and saving lives or being the top gun in their profession. It is about the patient's well being - physically, mentally and on occasions spiritually.


To illustrate:

Today I was told the story of Steven, a young man of some 31 years. At an early age Steven was afflicted with meningitis which left him mentally not as ‘well' developed as some. Yet he soldiered on through his disabilities. He always smiled and was appreciative of any attention afforded him. Personal requests were few and far between.

Now as if he hadn't already been dealt a poor enough hand, he was recently diagnosed with cancer of a terminal variety. He seemed to understand his fate and yet his smiling brave face remained. His therapists of late were a group of nurses staffing the hospice to which he had been sent to be cared for during his final weeks. It seemed they had little to do though as there were no requests. They could however bring him a cup of cocoa and sit and talk with him and then be with him when finally he admitted, 'I'm not feeling well'. They stayed with him to hold his hand and comfort him as best they could.

And was their treatment successful?

Tragically Steven died this morning clutching his favourite toy, a lorry, and yet upon his face was both a smile and an unmistakable look of peace. Yes!; it appears that the appropriate treatment had been administered, and of course not being single-minded, the therapists have now referred Steven on … to St. Peter … as they eventually do with all their patients.

Remember, your health and the health of your companion is in your hands. When seeking the aid of a practitioner or therapist, you are delegating some of the responsibility for that health. Delegate wisely!


About the author:

Tom Ahern is a veterinarian, currently based in the UK, who has spent some 20 years investigating different forms of both western and alternative therapies, in particular for the treatment of nerve pain (Neuropathic Pain). His investigations involve clinical experiences and information gathered with the co-operation of numerous therapists and veterinarians in some 14 countries about the globe.