June 21, 2021

Deconstructing Pre-Med Buzzwords: What Does ‘Holistic’ Actually Mean?

By: Ryan Kelly

The term ‘holistic’ can be pretty contentious. I’ve even heard comments that pre-meds will “never get in” if they use the word in their essays for osteopathic medical schools (but I have hundreds of past students who’ve proven that wrong).

The reason it’s so contentious is that it can have several very different meanings to different people. With that in mind, it’s crucial for you to understand how this term can be interpreted so that you don’t use it in a misleading or confusing way.

This article will break down the most common definitions and interpretations of the buzzword ‘holistic’ and give some examples of each. That way, you can make it work effectively for your intentions and purposes in your application.

Deconstructing Pre-Med Buzzwords: What Does ‘Holistic’ Actually Mean?

#1. ‘Holistic’ Can Refer to ‘Whole-person Care’

‘Holistic’ is most often used in pre-meds’ essays when they’re writing personal statements and secondaries for osteopathic medical schools. And in that case, they’re usually using it as a synonym for ‘whole-person care.’

‘Whole-person care’ is becoming a buzzword in and of itself, appearing in countless medical schools’ mission statements and values.

‘Whole-person care’ is a patient-centered approach that delivers the physical, behavioral, emotional, and social services required to improve care coordination, well-being, and health outcomes, all while respecting patients’ treatment choices.

In other words, it’s an approach that considers all aspects of someone’s health and formulates treatment based on these multiple variables. For example, the lifestyle and diet advice a physician would give to diabetes patients might depend heavily on their finances, environment, and health literacy. Do they have insurance? Do they live in food deserts? Do they have other comorbidities?

Similarly, ‘whole-person care’ relates back to my previous article about ‘cultural competence,’ since physicians shouldn’t discuss bloodwork or blood diseases with a Jehovah’s Witness in the same way as they would other patients.

So, ‘whole-person care’ does not look at physical symptoms or treatment in a vacuum. It seeks to individualize care by accounting for all aspects of patients’ identity and overall wellness.


#2. ‘Holistic’ Can Mean ‘Interconnected’

In a similar vein, ‘holistic’ might refer to the idea that all bodily systems and parts of human anatomy/physiology are interconnected.

Let’s say there are two patients who both have a toothache. One has a history of heart disease, but the other is relatively healthy with no chronic conditions. For the healthy patient, a trip to the dentist will be an isolated, routine visit, but for the patient with heart disease, a toothache may point to underlying symptoms.

This means that many physicians, particularly osteopaths, will view the body as a unit of interconnected parts, recognizing how symptoms or issues in one area can cause problems or illnesses in others.

This idea is at the heart of Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). OMT is a hands-on method that’s used to treat mechanical pain (muscle, tendon, or bone pain due to structural imbalance) and a wide range of other health conditions. DOs also use OMT to diagnose and prevent disease and help your body function better.

Using OMT techniques, DOs apply gentle pressure to manipulate the muscles, soft tissues, and joints. The treatment encourages your body to heal itself by ensuring that your bones and muscles are aligned and balanced properly.

Most people get OMT to treat back pain, but DOs use it for many conditions, including:

  • Breathing issues like asthma and sinus infections
  • Bowel issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation
  • Chronic pain, including fibromyalgia, arthritis, menstrual pain, and migraines.
  • Musculoskeletal problems like back and neck pain, joint pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Problems associated with pregnancy, such as swelling (edema), insomnia, and sciatica.
  • Sports injuries and repetitive stress injuries.

By restoring your structural imbalance, OMT improves nerve and blood circulation to the bodily organ involved, helping to improve health of that organ.

#3. ‘Holistic’ Can Refer to ‘Alternative Medicine’

This is where you need to be the most careful as a pre-med who’s using the term.

Whether right or wrong, some people conflate the term ‘holistic’ with the use of alternative and complementary medicine (CAM), including any of the following treatment methods:

1. Traditional alternative medicine, including the more mainstream and accepted forms of therapy:

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • Homeopathy
  • Naturopathy
  • Chinese medicine

2. Body techniques are often combined with those of the mind. Examples of body therapies include:

  • Chiropracty
  • Massage
  • Body movement therapies
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

3. External energy. Some people believe external energies from objects or other sources directly affect a person's health:

  • Electromagnetic therapy
  • Reiki
  • Qigong

4. Even standard or conventional medicine recognizes the power of the connection between mind and body:

  • Meditation
  • Biofeedback
  • Hypnosis

5. Some people believe the senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste, can affect overall health:

  • Art, dance, and music
  • Visualization and guided imagery

As you might have guessed, there is a lot of debate and strong opinions about the scientific efficacy of these various treatment modalities (which often exist outside the purview of Western medical training).

With that in mind, you need to be wary of how you use ‘holistic’ and ensure that your meaning is clear, one way or the other. When in doubt, define your terms and explain exactly what you mean (i.e. "To me, holistic care means..." or "In my experience, holistic care means...").

#4. ‘Holistic’ is How Medical Schools (Supposedly) Assess You

Lastly, the term ‘holistic’ can also refer to the method by which medical schools review and assess their candidates for admission.

According to the AAMC, medical schools will consider all aspects of an applicant’s background when choosing their incoming classes.

What does this mean exactly? 

“Holistic review is an admissions process that considers each applicant individually by balancing their academic metrics with experiences and attributes. These factors are viewed in combination to consider how an individual might contribute value not only as a medical student, but also as a future physician. Nearly all medical schools report using some elements of holistic review.”

The AAMC has even gone as far as creating this complex diagram to represent the layers of a candidate that are considered:

Borrowed from the AAMC

Of course, you’ll still need good enough metrics to get into medical school, but it is somewhat encouraging to think about how all these aspects of your identity could play to your favor.

When thinking about these layers, it’s best if you can show medical schools a continuum of your values and experiences throughout your life.

For example, I once worked with a student who was partially raised in a women’s and children’s shelter after immigrating to America from Egypt. Once her family achieved housing security, she continued to volunteer at that same shelter until she left for college. In college, she saw a lack of resources for the homeless in her new city and created a new kitchen/food bank and partnered with a local non-profit to establish a shelter for abused women and children. These leadership and advocacy roles paired well with her global and public health studies and her eventual plan to practice primary care in disadvantaged urban areas. 

In other words, she clearly had trends across her application narrative, giving her a sense of entirety and totality, thereby making it easier for medical schools to view and remember her in a holistic, big-picture way.      


Have any questions about ‘holistic’ or other pre-med buzzwords? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally!

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