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Whole Person Care: What It Means, How To Use It, and Why It’s Important

Western medicine has traditionally segmented the body into different parts. This has been especially true for psychology, where mental health has traditionally been seen as something wholly separate from physical health. Recently, however, research has uncovered just how connected every aspect of health truly is. This has led to increased attention to whole person care.

What is whole person care?

To understand whole person care, we must first define whole person health.

Whole person health is the understanding that the entire body functions as one system. This means that separate organs do not operate in a vacuum, and our psychological health cannot be completely separated from our physiological health.

Whole person care is the practice of promoting health by understanding how a medical condition impacts the entire body and what social and environmental factors are at play.

For example, to administer whole person care to a client experiencing depression, a therapist could consider:

  • Biochemical reactions in the client’s brain, such as lowered levels of dopamine or serotonin
  • If the client’s basic needs are being met, i.e., are they experiencing housing, food, and/or clothing insecurity?
  • Is the client experiencing chronic pain or fatigue?

While this is a newer approach to health care, studies indicate that it can help alleviate many, even chronic, conditions. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “A growing body of research suggests the benefits of healthy behaviors, environments, and policies to maintain health and prevent, treat, and reverse chronic diseases.”

To understand how to best put whole person care into practice, let’s examine its different components.

The dimensions of whole person care

Two female healthcare professionals discussing whole person care with patients

Though whole person care advocates for a more holistic approach to healthcare, quickly determining the health of a client’s entire life in one appointment can be daunting. Therefore, researchers have broken down what practitioners need to look for into several different groups, or “dimensions.”

The dimensions of whole person care are:

  • Physical — This is what we would consider traditional healthcare, i.e., the body. For this dimension, practitioners should examine how the client’s body is functioning. Are there any issues with organ function? Are they experiencing issues with breathing, sleep, or pain?
  • Psychological — Psychological well-being is an important factor in both overall happiness and physical well-being. Those dealing with acute anxiety or depression, for example, could experience pain or fatigue brought on by the psychological distress they are experiencing.
  • Social — Known as social determinants of health, the environment in which a client lives and their access to necessary goods and services can greatly impact their overall health. If a client is experiencing homelessness or food insecurity, they will face greater risks of malnutrition and other physical maladies, while also being at higher risk of mental illness.
  • Spiritual — In whole person care, spirituality does not imply religiosity. Rather, it refers to the way in which individuals find meaning and purpose in their connection to themselves, others, and the world around them. Helping clients find this type of hopeful meaning has proven beneficial, especially in palliative care settings.

Services included in whole person care

The holistic nature of whole person care means that professionals from every sector of the healthcare industry are involved in providing it. Below is a brief overview of the services involved in this process and their role in whole person care.

  • Clinicians: Clinicians are often the first and only healthcare professionals that clients will interact with while receiving care. As such, no matter their specialty, clinicians need to know how to identify when a client is experiencing an illness, mental health condition, or injury, and who to recommend their client to if they are unable to provide services.
  • Hospital or post-acute facility: When clients are in a hospital or post-acute facility, it’s typically due to an injury or illness that could induce traumatic stress. As such, practitioners in these environments need to know the signs of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions that may arise. Additionally, these facilities should employ therapists or other mental health professionals or have a robust network of mental health providers to consult with or refer patients to.
  • Social workers and case managers: Social workers and case managers are more likely to see clients living in their everyday environment. As such, they are positioned to understand the social determinants of health facing their clients and help them navigate these challenges.
  • Mental health professionals: Mental health professionals need to understand the psychological, emotional, social, and physical aspects of health affecting their client. It’s critical for them to know how things like injuries, illnesses, homelessness, or food insecurity, can affect their client’s psychological well-being.
  • Pharmacists: Pharmacists need to communicate with practitioners to understand any barriers to medication clients may face. This can include allergies, history of substance use disorder, insurance, and more.
  • Payers: Many in the U.S. go without effective whole person care due to issues with health insurance. When participating in a care network, payers need to work with practitioners and clients to provide true value-based care.

How to coordinate care

Two women looking at a tablet, discussing how to coordinate whole person care for clients

For effective whole person care, organizations need to coordinate medical, behavioral health, and any necessary social services. In this way, organizations can ensure their clients’ holistic healthcare needs are being met.

Care coordination must focus on the needs of the individual. When designing a care coordination plan for a client, practitioners should examine the physical and mental health issues facing the client, the environment in which they live, and any difficulties the client may face in securing further care.

Successful care coordination will, thus, not only provide clients with continued medical care, but also ensure they have access to food, transportation, housing, and other pre-requisites for a healthy life.

To offer these services to clients, organizations should create partnerships with medical, behavioral health, and social services organizations in their service area. Through these types of partnerships, healthcare organizations can create networks of care in their communities that ensure persons served are receiving the best whole person care.

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