Background: The purpose of this study was to examine how allopathic physicians participate in the decision to refer patients for alternative therapies.
Methods: A pretested, self-administered, structured questionnaire was distributed simultaneously to all area physicians at community locations in Washington State, New Mexico, and southern Israel. The primary outcome measures were monthly and yearly rates of referral to alternative therapies.
Results: More than 60% of all physicians made referrals to alternative providers at least once in the preceding year and 38% in the preceding month. Referrals were generally based on patient requests, synergy between the alternative therapy and the patients' cultural beliefs, failure of conventional treatment, and the belief that patients have "nonorganic" or "psychological" disease. There was no relationship between the rate of referral and the referring physician's level of knowledge about, beliefs about the effectiveness of, or familiarity with alternative therapies.
Conclusions: Primary care physicians are more likely than other medical specialists to be knowledgeable about, personally subscribe to, and refer patients for alternative therapies. Physicians who use alternative techniques for themselves and their families or who adopt complementary therapies into their practices have higher rates of referrals. Referral rates and patterns were similar between sites despite considerable cross-cultural and health system differences. Given the high rate of referral and the absence of an apparent internal logic for such recommendations, guidelines and physician education may be advisable.