Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Why Are Australian GPs Using Alternative Medicine? Postmodernisation, Consumerism and the Shift towards Holistic Health(*)

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Why Are Australian GPs Using Alternative Medicine? Postmodernisation, Consumerism and the Shift towards Holistic Health(*)

Article excerpt

The trend towards GP use of alternative medicine

This paper is a report on a comprehensive sociological theory to explain the increasing use of alternative therapies by Australian GPs. Western medicine is rapidly incorporating alternative medicine into mainstream primary health care. As a result, the amount of public and private money spent in this sector is also rising dramatically (BMJ 1996: 131). The main modalities of alternative medicine used by doctors are acupuncture, manipulation, hypnosis, vitamin therapy, herbal treatments and homeopathy (Eastwood 1997: 22-6). Fisher and Ward (1994: 107) note both the intensified focus on alternative medicine in Western societies and the growing number of orthodox medical practitioners who are using unconventional therapeutic methods. Overseas data show interest in referral and use of alternative modalities by general medical practitioners (Wharton and Lewith 1986; Anderson and Anderson 1987; Perkins, Pearcy and Fraser 1994; Fisher and Ward 1994; Verhoef and Sutherland 1995; Goldzmidt, Levitt, Duarte-Franco and Kacorowski 1995; Lynoe and Svensson 1992).

The present paper examines the increasing use of alternative therapies by Australian general medical practitioners. While this trend is well documented in overseas literature, little data exist relating to Australian trends. However, enough information exists to verify that the number of general medical practitioners using alternative therapies is increasing dramatically. For example, statistics from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Victorian Branch) indicate that the number of GPs using complementary therapies more than doubled from 2000 in 1992 to over 4000 in 1996 (Services Division RACGP 1996). There being an estimated 23 000 Australian GPs, this would indicate that approximately one in six Australian GPs is using some form of alternative medicine. This figure is conservatively supported by the Integrative Medicine Association, which estimates that over 3000 doctors throughout Australia are incorporating modalities such as meditation and relaxation therapies, herbal medicine, nutritional medicine, homeopathy, manipulation and physical medicine into their clinical practice (Kotsirilos 1995: 11). According to more reliable data from the Australian Health Insurance Commission (HIC)(1) over 3000 GPs are using acupuncture alone. In the last ten years, the number of doctors providing acupuncture treatments has risen from 1987 during 1984-85 to 3001 in the 1993-94 period (HIC 1995). More recently, a secondary analysis of Australian Health Insurance Commission data has confirmed that approximately one in seven Australian GPs uses acupuncture (Easthope et al. 1998).

There is a growing literature on the use of alternative therapies by otherwise orthodox Western doctors, but what sociological literature there is concentrates upon documentation rather than explanation of this trend. Evan Willis (1994) is one of the few Australian sociologists to investigate the convergence of orthodox and alternative medicine in Australia, noting that this convergence involves a theoretical paradox from the standpoint of orthodox, Western medicine.

Willis' argument

Willis' analysis of this convergence rests upon four elements: 1) the use of biomedical diagnostic procedures by alternative therapists; 2) the increasing recognition of alternative therapy within the mainstream health system as evidenced by referrals to alternative therapists; 3) the theoretical paradox of orthodox doctors who themselves offer complementary treatment modalities; and 4) the increasing emphasis upon clinical legitimacy rather than scientific legitimacy. Willis' (1994) analysis assumes that pragmatic motives explain this trend. The present paper argues that this trend is actually part of a broader paradigm shift in the Western world view. Throughout modernity, the positivistic, scientific basis of biomedicine has been used by orthodox medical practitioners to legitimate their health practices and to exclude alternative practitioners. …

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