Healing Traditions: Alternative Medicine and the Health Professions

By Bonnie Blair O’Connor | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Defining and Understanding Health
Belief Systems

Throughout this century and even before, there has been a general assumption—even a conviction—in the health professions and in academia that folk and popular systems of health beliefs and practices would inevitably decline in modern and industrialized societies, falling away before the forces of modernization and progress to be replaced by modern, Western medicine. Yet this has not been the case. Nonbiomedical healing systems have persisted steadily alongside the burgeoning medical establishment: some waxing and waning in cycles, some holding constant, and some continually gaining in popularity among widening and diversifying circles of proponents. In the past two decades especially, there has been a significant reinvigoration and expansion of nonconventional healing systems of all sorts. As we near the threshold of the twenty-first century, there are an enormous number and variety of health belief systems active in the United States, in addition to conventional biomedicine. Certain of these systems are very closely allied to specific ethnic groups and are largely derived from the group’s culture of origin or ancestry. Some systems, whether ethnically identified or not, have a very specific religious or denominational foundation. Others have an appeal that cuts across lines of ethnicity, religion, and social class; and still others are associated almost exclusively with educated, middle-class, “mainstream” groups.

A second prevalent assumption—also misleading—has been the notion that those people who have recourse to nonconventional healing practices are most likely to do so instead of resorting to the biomedical system, and this impression has given rise to a good deal of frustration and concern in the health professions. While there are undeniably some belief systems that do discourage use of conventional medical resources, these are relatively few and do not accurately represent the entire range of the pluralistic health care environment of the United

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