Aim: To clarify the reasons underlying people's use of medical herbalism in the context of contemporary U.K. health care.
Design: This qualitative, interpretative study recruited 19 adults who were consulting with registered medical herbalists in a region of southern England. Participants were interviewed about their experiences and the data were analysed thematically. Study methodology was informed by Gadamerian hermeneutic phenomenology.
Results: Few of the participants had initially set out to try herbalism, most looking for 'an alternative' to conventional health care. The main reason for exploring non-conventional options was to seek out health care that would more effectively meet their self-perceived needs in the treatment of a chronic condition. As a result of favourable outcomes from their initial treatment, participants subsequently continued to use herbalism for the management of more general, everyday health problems.
Conclusions: Lay and professional ideas about what constitutes health care 'effectiveness' do not necessarily correspond. Participants reported that, in comparison to conventional medicine, medical herbalism satisfied their expectations of health care because it more readily met their own criteria for effectiveness and because it had greater consistency with their own understanding about health, illness and health care. Central to achieving this was the collaborative nature of the herbalist's approach, as well as the therapeutic effect and enduring history of the herbal therapy itself. Participants were in favour of a future integrative health care system provided this did not interfere with the unique attributes of herbalism that make it distinct from conventional medicine.