Background: Although the Indian Health Service provides extensive health care service to Navajo people, the role of native healers, or medicine men, has not been quantitatively described.
Objective: To determine the prevalence of native healer use, the reasons for use, cost of use, and the nature of any conflict with conventional medicine.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional interview of 300 Navajo patients seen consecutively in an ambulatory care clinic at a rural Indian Health Service hospital.
Results: Sixty-two percent of Navajo patients had used native healers and 39% used native healers on a regular basis; users were not distinguishable from nonusers by age, education, income, fluency in English, identification of a primary provider, or compliance, but Pentecostal patients used native healers less than patients of other faiths. Patients consulted native healers for common medical conditions such as arthritis, depression, and diabetes mellitus as well as "bad luck." Perceived conflict between native healer advice and medical provider advice was rare. Cost was the main barrier to seeking native healer care.
Conclusions: Among the Navajo, use of native healers for medical conditions is common and is not related to age, sex, or income but is inversely correlated with the Pentecostal faith; use of healers overlaps with use of medical providers for common medical conditions. Patients are willing to discuss use of native healers and rarely perceive conflict between native healer and conventional medicine. This corroborates other research suggesting that alternative medicine is widely used by many cultural groups for common diseases.