What motivates a doctor to work as an integrative medical practitioner? This is a question I asked myself often. Despite trying to find answers through several methods, I was not very successful. The question does not seem well-researched at all. Here is what I found so far:
Our own 1996 survey of GPs participating in a course at Exeter that was aimed at familiarizing them with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) found that the main perceived advantage of SCAM, apart from the potential intrinsic value of the techniques themselves, was the time available for establishing a good therapeutic relationship with the patient.
A UK survey from 2001 suggested that doctors are motivated by issues ranging from feeling a responsibility to respond to their patients’ interests and needs to developing “another string to their bow.” Some are attracted to its study in its own right, others by a wish to focus some of their energy away from conventional medical practice, which they may find stressful and unfulfilling. Doctors studying complementary and alternative medicine often call on different personality traits and report a variety of positive benefits from training, including welcoming the opportunity to engage their feelings, trust their intuition, and enjoy therapeutic touch. Comments from attendees at one homoeopathic course were “I started to enjoy seeing patients again,” “Training had improved my conventional history taking,” and “Having another approach made treating heart-sink patients easier.”
A German focus group in 2008 with 17 GP suggested that scientific evidence and patient preference were the main criteria used by these doctors in deciding whether to apply a SCAM or not.
An interview study published in 2011 with Australian doctors provided some details. The researchers invited 43 doctors to participate. Twenty-three agreed to take part in either a face-to-face (n = 7) or telephone (n = 16) interviews. Here is the passage entitled “Motivations to work as an integrative medical practitioner” from their paper:
‘Family of origin health beliefs and practices’ were an important influence on the doctors’ philosophical approach and their decisions to work as an integrative medical practitioner.
…When I grew up it was not uncommon that I would see my aunties and uncles preparing all sorts of things. My auntie laying me on her lap and putting breast milk in my ear and drinking chamomile tea for a sore belly…there was lots of things that influenced me. (Female, 23 years in practice)
…There is a long tradition in [country of origin] of using a herbalist. I heard things from my mum and my grandma and those ideas were there. (Male, 16 years in practice)
The ‘personal or close family illness experiences’ reported by doctors were also influential in motivating them to practice integrative medicine. These experiences included non-conventional approaches to health and illness and the use of CAM as treatment modalities.
…I had my own illness – depression and a very bad back. I’d been on medication for years and I got sick of taking medications and I was given a prognosis of chronic illness with relapses and I really didn’t like it. So I started to look elsewhere and that took me in to the world of mind-body medicine. (Female, 24 years in practice)
Other doctors cited ‘professional experiences’, often early in their careers, of different theoretical approaches to medicine as being a powerful stimulus to practice integrative medicine. These included being inspired by a medical lecturer, an interesting, usually non-conventional experience during a placement as a medical student, and professional experiences of CAM modalities during their residency or early medical career.
…We had this subject Medical Studies 3, where there was a discussion of the French fur trapper in the Yukon who had shot himself in the stomach and the local doctor who was experimenting with various emotional states. There was just that sort of moment, of thinking, that’s the sort of area that I want to work in. (Male, 26 years in practice)
…I found myself doing a clinical attachment at a hospital in Switzerland that used integrated medicine, they had a course and I thought I’ll just do this for interest. I came in contact with an Indian person who did homeopathy and I found his stories quite interesting. (Male, 22 years in practice)
‘Dissatisfaction with the conventional approach to medicine’, which was perceived to be too illness focused or commercialized, was also cited by some doctors as a precursor to adopting an integrative approach to medical practice.
…More and more I’m realising that medicine is a personalised thing. We need to learn the art of treating people individually rather than en masse as a sick lung or a sick toe or a sick whatever because it doesn’t work like that. (Male, 22 years in practice)
…Medicine was hijacked by the market; i.e.: big pharmaceutical companies. And they have seduced the government, the colleges, the universities, general practice, everybody. GPs, in my opinion, have been deskilled. (Female, 19 years in practice).
An Australian survey from 2021 suggested that GPs were attracted to SCAM because they thought it to be relatively safe and effective, offering additional, holistic benefits to patients.
Collectively these investigations suggest that doctors’ motivation to work as integrated medical practitioners vary greatly. They seem to include:
- positive evidence for SCAM’s safety and efficacy,
- having the time to establish a good therapeutic relationship,
- wanting to use all therapeutic options,
- dissatisfaction with conventional medicine,
- patient preferences,
- wanting to practice in a more human and holistic way,
- personal and professional experiences.
But surely, there are other factors as well (from my personal experience in dealing with doctors of integrative medicine, I could list a few that are less than flattering). In any case, I would be most interested to hear your thought and read more published evidence that you might know about.