Early written accounts of rongoā generally refer to the alleviation of symptoms. It appears unlikely that Māori
had classified disease states according to syndromes. Instead, the particular effects of rongoā were linked to specific
symptoms.3 Table 1 provides some examples.
Rongoā are dispensed as part of a wider healing tradition, rather than for just the removal of symptoms. The healer
identifies the problem and decides on the most suitable approach. It may involve rongoā, karakia (incantations),
whānau participation or, more often, a combination of several methods. Effectiveness is not simply related to the
pharmacological action of a plant, but to a process conducted within the context of traditional healing.4
Levels of outcome
The aims of traditional healing, against which outcomes might be measured, can be grouped into three levels: the alleviation
of distress, improved wellbeing and the modification of lifestyle.
Most people who seek advice from a healer do so because they are distressed. The distress may be spiritual (e.g. a preoccupation
with a recurring image), emotional (e.g. a feeling of depression), physical (e.g. an irritating skin rash) or social (e.g.
failed relationships with family members). An immediate outcome sought by the distressed person will be relief from discomfort,
no matter what its origins. This result can be described as a level one outcome. Given a holistic approach to health,
and the emphasis placed on relationships with others, including the natural environment, traditional healing also aims
to improve levels of wellbeing. This is not only by alleviating symptoms but also by delivering a sense of mental, spiritual,
physical and social contentment, described as a level two outcome.
A third level of outcome is about generating an awareness of health, in all its dimensions, and fostering a lifestyle
that is compatible with the highest possible state of wellbeing. Every healing intervention creates an opportunity for
reviewing patterns of living, reinforcing the balance between spiritual and physical dimensions, consolidating identity
and encouraging the development of positive relationships. Changes in attitudes and behaviour do not occur overnight but
for many indigenous people the catalyst for long lasting change has often been a healing encounter.
If rongoā are to be used for health and wellbeing, their effectiveness needs to be determined. Ultimately, this
will be a task for healers themselves.