'Trying to put a square peg into a round hole': a qualitative study of healthcare professionals' views of integrating complementary medicine into primary care for musculoskeletal and mental health comorbidity

BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018 Oct 29;18(1):290. doi: 10.1186/s12906-018-2349-8.


Background: Comorbidity of musculoskeletal (MSK) and mental health (MH) problems is common but challenging to treat using conventional approaches. Integration of conventional with complementary approaches (CAM) might help address this challenge. Integration can aim to transform biomedicine into a new health paradigm or to selectively incorporate CAM in addition to conventional care. This study explored professionals' experiences and views of CAM for comorbid patients and the potential for integration into UK primary care.

Methods: We ran focus groups with GPs and CAM practitioners at three sites across England and focus groups and interviews with healthcare commissioners. Topics included experience of co-morbid MSK-MH and CAM/integration, evidence, knowledge and barriers to integration. Sampling was purposive. A framework analysis used frequency, specificity, intensity of data, and disconfirming evidence.

Results: We recruited 36 CAM practitioners (4 focus groups), 20 GPs (3 focus groups) and 8 commissioners (1 focus group, 5 interviews). GPs described challenges treating MSK-MH comorbidity and agreed CAM might have a role. Exercise- or self-care-based CAMs were most acceptable to GPs. CAM practitioners were generally pro-integration. A prominent theme was different understandings of health between CAM and general practitioners, which was likely to impede integration. Another concern was that integration might fundamentally change the care provided by both professional groups. For CAM practitioners, NHS structural barriers were a major issue. For GPs, their lack of CAM knowledge and the pressures on general practice were barriers to integration, and some felt integrating CAM was beyond their capabilities. Facilitators of integration were evidence of effectiveness and cost effectiveness (particularly for CAM practitioners). Governance was the least important barrier for all groups. There was little consensus on the ideal integration model, particularly in terms of financing. Commissioners suggested CAM could be part of social prescribing.

Conclusions: CAM has the potential to help the NHS in treating the burden of MSK-MH comorbidity. Given the challenges of integration, selective incorporation using traditional referral from primary care to CAM may be the most feasible model. However, cost implications would need to be addressed, possibly through models such as social prescribing or an extension of integrated personal commissioning.

Keywords: Comorbidity; Complementary medicine; Integrated medicine; Mental health; Musculoskeletal; NHS; Primary care; Qualitative.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Complementary Therapies / statistics & numerical data
  • England
  • Female
  • General Practitioners / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / psychology
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / therapy*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Workforce