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Healer Syndrome

The problem with health care professionals, especially in alternative medicine, who want to be known as “healers”

Paul Ingraham, updated

SHOW SUMMARY

There’s a certain kind of health care professional who likes to be known as a “healer.”1 In the worst case scenario, they actually use the title, like this: “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’ll be your healer today.” I know a massage therapist here in Vancouver who actually refers to herself as a “healer” on a regular basis. She seems to go out of her way to use the word, looking for excuses to mention that she’s a healer.

Ick.

It’s arrogant and distasteful, obviously. It’s an absurd conceit, incompatible with competence and professionalism. Humility is an essential ingredient in health care: if you don’t have it, it’s almost impossible to do a good job. Anyone who uses the “healer” label probably isn’t actually healing anyone. Most chronic pain is extremely difficult to treat anyway: more on this below.

I’m appalled at the number of massage therapists—and others—who will introduce themselves as healers. I just want to gag, and I’ve felt that way since long before my Reformation. They honestly believe they are helping people. And when I was doing it, I honestly believed it, too.

~ Laura Allen, Excuse me, exactly how does that work? Hocus pocus in holistic healthcare, 2014

That “healer” attitude (if not the actual label)

When therapists wear the healer identity on their sleeve, it makes them easy to avoid! Unfortunately, not all of them do. Acute healer syndrome is just the tip of an iceberg of less obvious ego problems among freelance therapists. For every therapist who actually uses the word “healer,” there are a dozen who have the attitude without being foolish enough to put it right on their business card.

All self-employed health care professionals — “freelancers” — must make a good impression on patients in order to make a living. I speak from experience.2 That need for self-promotion can be corrosive and corrupting. It often clashes with what patients need.3 Living with this conflict of interest for many years can lead to some mental gymnastics and major motivated reasoning. [Wikipedia]

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

~ Upton Sinclair

The ego kicks in: we start believing that we can treat practically anyone, that every patient does need us, that we do offer a unique and therapeutically potent service. We start talking about our “success rates.”4 Selling our services turns many of us into “true believers” in our own methods and pet theories, incapable of recognizing problems with them.

In other words, we start thinking of ourselves as “healers,” even if that word never crosses our minds. Self-serving behaviours can be justified by self-confidence: it’s all good when you really can help almost everyone … right? This is the most dangerous form of healer syndrome — a subtle and insiduous attitude problem.

Healing healer syndrome

The human mind is hopelessly vulnerable to profit-motivated bias (among others), and most self-employed professionals will start to err in favour of their egos eventually. The best and only medicine for it is an education in critical thinking5 and constant vigilance and self-reflection. We must overcompensate in the opposite direction even if it means turning people away. We must cultivate a self-sacrificial pride in doing so.

Ironically and delightfully that turns out to be good for business.6

Trying to turn patients away actually attracts them. Patients love humility. They respect candid self-deprecation. They place a high value on health care professionals who undersell themselves. It’s a major selling point. It may not sell as well as claims of miraculous healing powers, but it does sell.

And there is so much cause to be humble …

Chronic pain often doesn’t have a solution

Never mind healers: even just the idea of a “good therapist” is largely a myth, as measured in terms of the ability to produce results for people people with chronic pain. I’ve been studying therapies for a wide variety of pain problems for a long time now, and I have seen a lot of well-intentioned but egotistical practitioners claiming to be (a lot) better than the competition. But I have yet to see any evidence that any professional or treatment is actually capable of producing dramatically better results than any other. Indeed, there’s good evidence of the opposite.789

Chronic pain is often stubborn by nature, not simply for lack of a fix.10 There’s an entire category of serious pain that’s common, but so poorly understood it doesn’t even have a name.11 There simply are no known treatments for most of these people. They carry right on suffering from pain chronically, no matter who they pay for help. (Nowhere is that story of disappointment told more charmingly than in Paula Kamen’s dazzling book, All in My Head: An epic quest to cure an unrelenting, totally unreasonable, and only slightly enlightening headache.)

And they will pay almost anyone who promises to help.

I have a low opinion of the ethics of health care “professionals” who give false hope to chronic pain patients. Nothing is easier to sell to people in pain than hope — they are one of the most motivated groups of potential customers imaginable. Half mad from their symptoms, their minds are pried too far open to bad ideas by agony. They will grasp at any straw, consider anything, and pay for anything, if there is the slimmest possibility of relief.

Exploiting people in that mental state is morally equivalent to the work of faith healers. It’s low. It’s cruel. Good intentions and the occasional placebo effect12 cannot give it honour. Even if no direct harm is done.

Many honest health care professionals will tell you the ugly truth that a lot of pain has no solution, but “healers” will never tell you that. A century of genuine scientific miracles, one after another for decades, has given us all a collective case of medical overconfidence, and it seems as though there “must” be a treatment out there, somewhere, for every problem. But the only miraculous thing about most quack cures for pain is the astonishing size of the egos behind them. So much for “humility” in alternative medicine.

Over the years, I have been told by a few manual therapists that it would “put them out of business” if they were honest about their limitations. That’s a strange combination! Admitting in one breath that you have limitations, but concluding in the next that you dare not admit it — how tragic and untrue! Patients deeply appreciate candid honesty, even self-deprecation. A therapist’s practice can easily be built on overt humility.

Pain is tough to treat, period. In your search for relief, stick to professionals who are candid about that: they are the ones who are actually more likely to find a way to take the edge off a little, and not take your money for bogus treatments. That’s mostly what makes a “good therapist.”

The facile humility of “facilitating” healing

A lot of people who believe that they are healers try to avoid saying so. One of the most popular ways of framing it is the myth of “facilitated” healing, a classic bit of insincere and muddled humility that is routinely expressed by alternative medicine practitioners as if it’s wisdom. Here is a classic formulation, where even the poorly placed comma seems predictable:

A healer is not someone that you go to for healing. A healer is someone that triggers within you, your own ability to heal yourself.

This is sacharine, silly, inspirational-poster nonsense. Self-healing is a classic “deepity”: that is, the most prosaic interpretation of the idea is true but trivial, and the most profound and interesting interpretation is nonsense.

What is the more prosaic interpretation of “your own ability to heal”? Animals can heal from most injuries and many illnesses — this is true, but so what? It’s neither surprising, nor is it anything that needs to be “triggered.” It’s an innate ability, not a rare gift only for inspired animals.

The more profound implication is that we can heal exceptionally well, better than what is generally considered possible — but only with help? Which wouldn’t really be self-healing, now would it? Either way, it’s either impossible by definition, or at least rare and mysterious.

So what’s the appeal?

If self-healing cannot be profound without being unbelievable, and can’t be believable without being boring, why claim it?

The whole point of touting facilitated healing is to seem like a “healer” without coming right out and saying it. It’s blatant humble-bragging, defined as making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.” Perfect.

Crediting the patient with doing the heavy lifting is also a good way to avoid explaining how, exactly, healing is “facilitated.”

Examples of humble-bragging about helping people heal

A massage therapist asked, in a large Facebook group for massage therapists:

Am I the only one who feels like massage therapists are healers in a way?

No, you are definitely not! As of this writing, there are 291 comments, with a fairly even mixture of yays and nays. Clearly many people are happy to embrace the term to varying degrees. One of the strongest themes in the comments is this seemingly self-deprecating idea that massage merely facilitates self-healing:

Again and again, you can see the attempt to humbly disclaim, to push the claim of healing away while still embracing the spirit of it. It’s particularly clear in a comment like this:

A distinction without a difference. Some therapists are willing to embrace the term “healer,” while others want to seem a little more humble about it … while claiming essentially the same thing.

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

Related Reading

What’s new in this article?

NovemberAdded a substantial discussion of the silly idea that a healer isn’t actually doing the heavy lifting, but is merely facilitating self-healing.

2016Significant revision: many nice little adjustments and polishing, especially several important citations and useful links. Added related reading section. Added a new featured image.

2016Editing, modernization, added some footnotes.

2014Added section “Chronic pain may not have a solution.”

2009Publication.

Notes

  1. Mostly “manual therapists” — professionals who usually work with their hands, primarily massage therapist and chiropractors, but also physical therapists. I’m also referring to some osteopaths and naturopaths, and even some physicians — but this phenomenon is definitely the most prevalent in alternative medicine, because reasons. For broad context, see Alternative Medicine’s Choice: Alternative to What? BACK TO TEXT
  2. I was a “freelance therapist” myself for a decade, a massage therapist from 2000–2010. I’m including myself when I criticize, as always. I used to do or believe most of the things I criticize! See About Paul Ingraham. BACK TO TEXT
  3. For instance, patients rarely need exactly and only what one therapist has to offer. Most therapists, most of the time, should be turning away a large percentage of the patients who approach them, refusing to try to help, deferring and referring to other professionals. But that’s rare in practice. BACK TO TEXT
  4. “Success rates” are not something individual clinicians can actually know, it wouldn’t constitute validation of methodology even if we could — way, way too many confounding factors. BACK TO TEXT
  5. TheGreatCourses.com [Internet]. Novella S. Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills; [cited 17 Mar 2]. BACK TO TEXT
  6. This is an opinion, based on my own professional experience as a massage therapist. I turned a lot of patients away, insisting that my skills and services were not adequate or appropriate for their problems. It had a profound positive effect on my business, in many ways. BACK TO TEXT
  7. Machado LA, Kamper SJ, Herbert RD, Maher CG, McAuley JH. Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2009 May;48(5):520–7. PubMed #19109315.  PainSci #54670. 

    This is a meticulous, sensible, and readable analysis of the very best studies of back pain treatments that have ever been done: the greatest hits of back pain science. There is a great deal of back pain science to review, but authors Machado, Kamper, Herbert, Maher and McCauley found that shockingly little of it was worth their while: just 34 acceptable studies out of a 1031 candidates, and even among those “trial quality was highly variable.” Their conclusions are derived from only the best sort of scientific experiments: not just the gold-standard of randomized and placebo-controlled tests, but carefully choosing only the “right” kind of placebos (several kinds of placebos were grounds for disqualification, because of their known potential to skew the results). They do a good job of explaining exactly how and why they picked the studies they did, and pre-emptively defending it from a couple common concerns. The results were sad and predictable, robust evidence of absence: “The average effects of treatments … are not much greater those of placebos.”

    BACK TO TEXT
  8. Vincent K, Maigne JY, Fischhoff C, Lanlo O, Dagenais S. Systematic review of manual therapies for nonspecific neck pain. Joint Bone Spine. 2013 Oct;80(5):508–15. PubMed #23165183. 

    Although the authors of this review conclude from 18 “high quality” trials that manual therapies “contribute usefully,” none of them was actually any better than any other therapy, either alone or in combination — never a good sign — and the evidence is “limited” for practically everything (most treatments, all long-term effects, and chronic neck pain). The one bright point here was the short-term effect of upper thoracic mobilization, where the positive evidence was judged “moderate.”

    BACK TO TEXT
  9. Davis CM. More questions than answers. Phys Ther. 2002 Mar;82(3):289–290. PainSci #56054. 

    A fascinating letter (plus replies) to the editor of Physical Therapy, regarding the October 2001 issue, which published the “shocking” results of the Philadelphia Panel, showing that “so few of the modalities that we have come to believe in actually show evidence of efficacy in controlled trials.” See “Philadelphia Panel evidence-based clinical practice guidelines on selected rehabilitation interventions: overview and methodology”.

    BACK TO TEXT
  10. Pain itself can change how pain works, so that patients with pain actually become more sensitive and get more pain with less provocation. For more information, see Sensitization in Chronic Pain: Pain itself can change how pain works, resulting in more pain with less provocation. BACK TO TEXT
  11. There are two main classifications of pain, nociceptive and neuropathic, for pain arising from threats to tissues or from damage to the nervous system itself. But this doesn’t remotely account for all pain: there is still no official “other” category for the pain of conditions like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic non-specific low back pain, which seem to involve dysfunction of the nervous system, as opposed to damage. See The 3 Basic Types of Pain. BACK TO TEXT
  12. “Who cares if it really works if it delivers a good placebo?” Many apologists for dubious treatments have made this argument, and they always exaggerate the value of. I think it’s unconscionable, even if placebo was actually as powerful as they think. Unfortunately, it’s not. See Placebo Power Hype. BACK TO TEXT