Primary Health Care Research & Development


Why GPs refer patients to complementary medicine via the NHS: a qualitative exploration

Sarah Briena1 c1, Emily Howellsa1, Geraldine M. Leydona1 and George Lewitha1

a1 Department of Primary Medical Care, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK


Background The use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is increasing. Access to CAM through primary care referral is common with some of these referrals occurring through existing NHS contracts. Yet currently little is understood about General Practitioners (GPs) referrals to CAM via an NHS contract.

Aim This exploratory qualitative study was designed to explore UK GPs experiences of referring patients to CAM under an NHS contract.

Method Semistructured interviews were conducted with 10 GPs in the UK, purposively sampled, who referred patients under an NHS contract to a private CAM clinic, staffed by medically qualified CAM practitioners. Qualitative methodology making use of the framework approach was used to undertake the interviews and analysis.

Findings The decision of GPs to refer a patient to CAM through an NHS contract is complex and based on negotiation between patient and GP but is ultimately determined by the patients’ openness and motivation towards CAM. Most GPs would consider referral when there are no other therapeutic options for their patients. Various factors, including clinical evidence, increase the likelihood of referral but two overarching influences are crucial: (a) the individual GPs positive attitude to, and experience of CAM, including a trusting relationship with the CAM practitioner; and (b) the patient’s attitude towards CAM. In-depth knowledge of CAM was not a vital factor for most GPs in the decision to refer.

Conclusion A CAM referral only took place if the patient readily agreed with this therapeutic approach, and in this respect it may differ from referrals by GPs to conventional medicinal practitioners. Such an approach, then, relies on patients having a positive view of CAM and as such could result in inequity in treatment access. Increasing knowledge about and evidence for CAM will assist GPs in making appropriate referrals in a timely manner. We propose a preliminary model that explains our findings about referrals considering patients need as well as the medical process. As data saturation may not have been achieved, further investigation is warranted to confirm or refute these suggestions.

(Received October 2007)

(Accepted May 2008)


c1 Correspondence to: Dr Sarah Brien, Department of Primary Medical Care, University of Southampton, Aldermoor Health Centre, Aldermoor Close, Southampton Hants S016 5ST, UK. Email: