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The Human Factor

by Mary Martin(more info)

listed in complementary medicine, originally published in issue 88 - May 2003

The Human Factor

Modern medicine appears to focus exclusively on the components of the physical body - psychological and emotional levels tend to be disregarded. Technological advances - that have their place – have reduced the 'whole person' to a fragment. Illness or even the body itself has become isolated from the individual. When attempting to understand health and illness or the healing process, this conventional approach reveals nothing about the human factor. Science has disconnected itself from the patient. When medical tests prove negative (although symptoms remain) patients can be left to their own devices - for five years in the following case!

Health is influenced by many factors – physical, psychological and spiritual states - also social and environmental conditions. The oft-quoted WHO definition "health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity" gives us something to strive for.

The Therapeutic Relationship

Practitioners and patients need to be joint partners in the healing process, aiming for balance in all areas of life. The central factor is the therapeutic relationship that involves both practical and non-specific aspects. The practitioner's attitude and intention contributes much to the healing process. Having a compelling belief in all aspects of therapy and the potential for self-healing, conveys a powerful message. Giving patients realistic hope, support and encouragement or making referral, in their pursuit of improved health and well-being can inspire them to achieve their objectives.

Sound practical advice and information, encourages people to manage their illness and their lives more effectively – it is self-empowering. Whether this is taken on board depends on the quality of the practitioner-patient relationship. This can be the deciding factor as to whether someone should embark on a course of therapy at all! It is more likely if the relationship is based on mutual trust and confidentiality, and also warmth and empathy. This kind of environment inspires patients to discuss anxieties and release mental and emotional stress. Genuine care and concern boosts morale and self-esteem and has a positive influence on health. Shared understanding can facilitate beneficial changes.

Case Example

Five years prior to consulting me, 37-year-old Mark collapsed with excruciating pains in his lower abdomen and back. There were tests for kidney stones - none were detected. Since that time he has experienced daily pains in his groin and urethra, somewhat controlled by drinking copious amounts of water.

He felt so nauseous he was unable to eat until midday, albeit only a little. He was depressed and slept badly through the anxiety of having no medical support or a diagnosis. It was demonstrated that psychological stress also increased the degree of physical pain. Despite this he worked to support his family.

Mark made many attempts to get medical help but his GP fobbed him off by saying that he had a trapped nerve, wind or a back problem! Admitting having no time to read his notes, one GP prescribed painkillers. He also attended an A and E Department in chronic pain, where a blood test was taken! Any assurances regarding referral to an urologist amounted to nothing, until recently.


I listened whilst he told me how the condition affected him, both physically and psychologically. He said that talking helped, especially as he was reluctant to overburden his wife. At least I could help him improve his health and well-being until his too-long-awaited hospital appointment. By reducing stress levels and giving moral support his sleep pattern should improve and boost his health.

After two treatments the nausea lessened and he slept better. By his fourth treatment he was free of pain and nausea and was eating normally. Depression had lifted and he was relaxed and 'feeling good'. During six further sessions he slept and ate normally and experienced only occasional pains. As his appointment loomed nearer I observed that the nausea returned to a lesser degree. Tests revealed an obstruction in the urethra, and an appointment with an urologist has been made.


An effective technique contributes greatly to the healing process by facilitating both physical and psychological changes. Touch is also a form of non-verbal communication, involving a positive energetic exchange between practitioner and patient. Even this largely depends on the quality of the therapeutic relationship.


A constraint of the NHS invariably means a short mechanistic approach without relating to patients in a meaningful way. Many patients aren't listened to. This has become the responsibility of the holistic practitioner.

Through my limited account we can appreciate how practitioners' attitudes can have either a negative or a positive effect on a person's health. Successful reflexology practice requires many skills. It entails providing a balance between practical aspects, such as the technique, and non-specific aspects such as trust, care and shared understanding within a patient-centred relationship. The experience of a good patient-centred relationship is central to healing in its broadest sense. It is highly valued by patients, especially when relationships with their doctors leave much to be desired. Mark's case is not an isolated one

There is much emphasis on technique that is reflected in the number of courses teaching a variety of methods. It is hoped that the same emphasis is being placed on the personal qualities and skills necessary to establish good therapeutic relationships. We need to make sure that despite the quest for scientific approval and tangible outcomes, human and personal factors are given a high priority in the therapy room.


Mitchell Annie and Cormack Maggie. The Therapeutic Relationship in Complementary Health Care. Churchill Livingstone. ISBN 0-443-05319-7. 1998.


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About Mary Martin

A qualified teacher, Mary Martin established her School of Reflexology in 1987. She founded the Association of Reflexologists in 1984 and is an Honorary Life Member. Previously she practised as a Gerson therapist. Mary belongs to a network of therapists attached to the cancer centre at Mount Vernon Hospital. She has had a busy practice in Ruislip since 1983. She may be contacted on Tel: 01895 635621;

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