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Healing Touch—Stat!

Dr. Mark Rosenberg brings holistic medicine to the ER.

Illustration Credit: Hand by Jennifer Davis

Dr. Mark Rosenberg is a personable, talkative doctor who has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years. But that’s not why people smile when they see him. As chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine as well as chief of Geriatrics Emergency Medicine and Palliative Medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System in New Jersey, Rosenberg has outside-the-box ideas about how to fix what is broken in modern medicine. His goal: take the best practices of non-Western medicine and integrate them into the mainstream. And he’s not just talking; he’s making it happen.

One of the Northeast’s busiest ERs, St. Joseph’s emergency room used to be a frantic, noisy, adrenaline-filled place. Though that is the reality for most emergency rooms in the country, Rosenberg believes—and scientific studies have confirmed—that stress is counterproductive to healing. He argues that patients need human contact, soothing music, and even pleasant smells to help them get well, and that when emergency rooms are more welcoming and less stressful, doctors and care providers benefit, too.

“Modern medicine is designed to be curative or symptom management, and doctors are very good at responding quickly when someone is sick or injured,” he says. “They don’t treat the patient as a person, but as an illness or an injury.” But a crucial human element is missing. “When you add the personal touch of something that is treating the patient as a person, like therapeutic touch or bedside harp, it helps them relax, decreases their pain, and increases their comfort.”

At Rosenberg’s initiative, St. Joseph’s 4,500-square-foot emergency department has offered four holistic practices to patients over the past two years: music therapy (in the form of musicians who walk the common areas playing handheld harps), therapeutic touch (which he likens to hand massage), Pranic Healing therapy (a no-touch Asian energy work to cleanse the prana, or life-force), and aromatherapy.

The aromatherapy—a blend of citrus oils that was diffused centrally—was discontinued after some staff members and patients complained about the smell. But the three other holistic practices have been successfully integrated, and even some of Rosenberg’s skeptical colleagues concede that these low-cost interventions have helped to reduce pain and anxiety and increase a sense of well-being among St. Joseph’s patients. Now for four to six hours during the busiest time of day, you are more likely to hear classical harp music in common areas than the loud, harsh noises of a typical ER.

Therapeutic touch, which patients can request in the same way they might choose chicken for lunch, has also been successful. “When you touch somebody, there is a connection that is instantly made,” Rosenberg explains. “If you do deliberate touch, that connection is so much deeper. It’s very spiritual. Whether you believe it or not is not the point. The point is that when the therapist does it, patients report feeling better, less anxious.”

Rosenberg’s favorite alternative therapy? Pranic Healing. A self-described type A person who rushes around, he says his whole demeanor changes after just five minutes of energy work, which, like the other therapies, is offered to staff as well as patients. “When a pranic healer gets hold of me, I sit down, close my eyes. I really, truly relax,” he says.

“I am not suggesting that doctors have to do anything different,” he says. “Part of their job is to dehumanize and move quickly from illness to illness. But the care team can be more human, and adding holistic care allows the care experience to be more humanistic.”