Why do people use complementary medicine?

image by eggybird on flickrFrom acupuncture to homeopathy, complementary medicine is increasingly popular despite continuing doubts about its effectiveness. Now Felicity Bishop and colleagues have used an internet survey to see if people who use complementary medicine tend to think about health and illness in a distinct way.

Of 247 participants who reported having a health problem, 62 per cent said they were currently using a form of complementary medicine. Those who said they believed in holistic health (e.g. by agreeing with statements like “treatments should focus on people’s overall well-being”) were more likely to be currently using complementary medicine. So too were those participants who believed that emotional factors can cause illness, those who had a strong understanding of their illness, and those who believed it had serious consequences.

“Having a strong understanding of one’s illness relates to the emphasis found in a range of complementary and alternative medicine modalities on the importance of the individual in health, illness and treatment, and the concept of the illness as an opportunity for personal development and learning”, the researchers said.

Using complementary medicine wasn’t necessarily associated with a rejection of orthodox medicine. Participants who evaluated their GP more positively were actually more likely to use ‘mind-body’ interventions like meditation.

However, as acknowledged by the researchers, the results of this study should be treated with caution – the sample were largely well-educated women who clearly had an interest in attitudes to complementary medicine otherwise they wouldn’t have volunteered. Moreover, the study is cross-sectional in design, meaning it’s possible the health-related attitudes of the participants currently using complementary medicine could have been caused by their use of those interventions rather than the other way around.

Bishop, F.L., Yardley, L. & Lewith, G.T. (2006). Why do people use different forms of complementary medicine? Multivariate associations between treatment and illness beliefs and complementary medicine use. Psychology and Health, 21, 683-698.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.