Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease

In my forays into the history of medicine I came across these six little words by Hippocrates.

They seem strangely modern, almost like something you might find on a Hallmark-card for today’s medical school graduates. I don’t know how old the translation is and I couldn’t understand the original text if I tried – but these simple words really touched me when I first read them.

In family medicine we don’t often cure our patients’ diseases. Many of the things we think of as medical cures are possibly only spontaneous recoveries from ear infections, pneumonias, strep infections, indigestion and acne.

Mostly we treat chronic conditions in hopes of mitigating their effects on our patients’ vital organs – eye, kidney and nerve damage in diabetes or strokes and heart attacks in patients with elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. Sometimes we only treat the symptoms – pain from degenerative arthritis or cough, congestion and shortness of breath from chronic lung disease.

The one thing physicians always can and should do is the thing we may be inclined to forget when the everyday frustrations of modern medicine make us watch the clock, the reimbursement schedule or any one of the distractions that get in the way of real doctoring.

Comfort and hope should be offered to every patient, every fellow human being, in every encounter. We must never lose sight of the power we have in changing our patients’ perceptions and expectations of their diseases.

In Hippocrates’ era, doctors believed that patients had a natural ability to overcome disease. Medical treatments were meant to support the natural healing processes. Hippocrates is said to have written: “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease”.

How ironic that twenty-five centuries later we are re-discovering and proving, through the modern science of neuroimmunology, that patients’ frame of mind and perception of their disease predict their treatment success and cure rate more than many of the technical details of their condition or its treatment.

When we comfort a patient, we may be doing more than consoling him or her. We may be stimulating the patient’s immune system to overcome disease and return the body to a healthful balance.

We used to call that the Placebo Effect.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

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  • Skeptic MD

    “Patients’ frame of mind and perception of their disease predict their treatment success and cure rate more than many of the technical details of their condition or its treatment.”

    When has wishing away cancer made it so? No doubt one’s frame of mind has a role in disease, but only for subjective measures.

    Homeopaths, reiki practitioners, herbalists and acupuncturists would all have you believe they “help the body heal itself.” People may feel better with these interventions in a spiritual “I’m taking control of my own health” kind of sense. Do they cure disease? No.

    Telling people they can cure themselves if they only have the “right” attitude essentially puts the blame on them if the disease progresses.

    You advocate placebos. To use them to maximum effect involves lying to your patients. I thought doctors were past that.

  • doc

    I am sure that modern medicine is the best form of medicine in historical context, just as it will surely be laughed at in not too distant future.
    While I agree with many of Skeptic’s comments, I am skeptical (pun intended) about his total dismisal of complimentary and alternative therapies with one broad brush stroke. Yes, they don’t work for always every condition or for everyone, just like modern medicine. Also, while there are abundant poor quality studies just as in mainstream medicine, there are many randomized controlled trials with herbal therapies as well as acupuncture etc for treatment of numerous diseases. An outright dismissal may indicate our selective acceptance and resistence to acknowledge what is published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature side-by-side with studies about modern therapies.
    Ultimately, as has been said before, there is only one medicine-the one that works!

  • Lori

    Thank you for your warmth and for sharing a healthy perspective of a more balanced approach to patient care. Many patients wish their physicians could understand the concept you are speaking of.

  • Sideways Shrink

    Currently the cost of nursing care is lumped in with the cost of the bed or the “bed day”, My mother,, a veteran AFL-CIO union shop rep nurse, told me that there is a bill for each of the particular “psychosocial” interactions nurses had with patients at the bedside that take time and effort and finesse. This valuation and billing system is called NIC-NOC. My mother frequently floated to oncology and one of the billable things she described was “Hope Installation” in which the nurse sits at the bedside and discusses with the patient their grief about their illness and helps elicit in them/encourages them that she has hope that the patient will get get well (when it is appropriate.
    I think this is what A Country Doctor’s interpretation of Hippocrates is. Healing is not only a matter of plumbing and spackle.

  • Martin Young

    I think It was also Hippocrates who said “The finest art in medicine is in keeping the patient entertained while nature cures the disease.”

    I quote this all the time. It may not be true for everything, but in essence it can explain the rising force of alternative and complimentary therapies. Modern medicine has lost the ability to ‘entertain’ with all the positive placebo and natural healing force that goes along with it.

  • Haleh Rabizadeh Resnick

    Thank you for your words doctor. I am the author of Little Patient Big Doctor: One Mother’s Journey. In part I share how overwhelming important attitude on the patient’s part can be. I simply don’t understand the resistance that this concept faces from doctors. It’s not as if we advocate modern medicine as bunk- it’s just that there are other factors that need to work along side it.


  • BookMD

    I thought this was a very wise article, and I am appalled by SkepticMD’s response. Acupuncture and energy medicine are nothing to scoff at, and in Europe entire hospitals use homeopathy. The immune system should not be underestimated! I thought we were past that.

    • Molly Ciliberti, RN

      The thought of an entire hospital using the voodoo medicine called homeopathy is scary. It is bunk science.

  • Carolyn Thomas

    As a heart attack survivor, I agree 100% with experts who claim that most heart disease could be prevented if only we didn’t smoke, exercised more and ate healthier. Our bodies are miraculous pieces of machinery, as even Skeptic might admit, with a profound and undeniable body/mind connection. My cardiologists have told me, for example, that one thing that likely kept me alive during my cardiac event was the amazing network of collateral coronary arteries (normally just lying about doing nothing, but which can spring into action and expand to detour around clots during emergencies). They called this “do-it-yourself bypass”.

    We also know that even factors like HOW a diagnosis is presented by a physician to the patient can actually impact the success of future medical treatment. Simply hearing a serious diagnosis is known as the “disruption stage” – the second and most dangerous of four identifiable stages in models of illness recovery (Morse and Johnson,1991). See also: “Why Hearing The Diagnosis Can Hurt Worse Than The Heart Attack” at: And we know that we can seriously harm our health by lifestyle factors like chronic stress, obesity, inactivity or sleep deprivation, so why would it be such a stretch to accept that the reverse is also true?

    Not all of professional health care needs to be caught up in the wonderful world of marketing-based medicine.

  • Molly Ciliberti, RN

    What a horrible thing to say to someone with cancer that wants to live and is as positive as possible and still dies, that their attitude could predict their treatment success. Blame the patient if they don’t get well. You didn’t have the right perspective and frame of mind so naturally you will not get better. We went through this bunk in the 70′s and I had several cancer patients tell me just how pissed off they were that somehow the progression of their disease was their fault.