Women and CAM

I was reminded of the women and complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) ‘problem’ by this blog about Professor Edzard Ernst’s talk at the last Skeptics in the Pub (which I missed, slap wrists). He mentioned that he had been talking to a female homeopath and as an aside said that most homeopaths are women. When quizzed on this later on he said:

All surveys show that the typical user of complementary medicine (more specifically homeopathy) but complementary medicine is… I call it “The Four F’s” – Around forty, female, fertile… and I was going to say “fucking mad”

Now I have blogged on this before and do concede that indeed women are the bigger consumer of CAM, and it seems many are practitioners. So as I asked last time – why?

Purely on anedoctal experience it tends to be either or both based on a) bad experience of ‘orthodox’ medicine and b) out of desperation. One woman I know was having trouble conceiving and so went for fertility treatment. This treatment was ultimately unnecessary because the cause of their infertility was, as it is for most 30-something professionals, a lack of sex (I’m not medically trained but I believe that is key). The treatment did however result in alapecia for her. Both of these events are pretty high on the scale of emotionally devastating and led her to go to a snake-oil salesman to treat the hair loss and later to a Chinese herbalist for fertility ‘things’. A combination of these treatments not working and me suggesting that it might take less effort if she just set fire to her money in the comfort of her own home, she now accepts that they weren’t the best course of action but that in both circumstances she was distraught and needed help from somewhere.

Postscript: she now has two children and her hair grew back albeit completely white, which I think is rather cool.

In a previous job I also attended a seminar on Do Not Resuscitate orders arranged by the then Disability Rights Commission. I was representing a certain medical professional body and was therefore treated with suspicion bordering on contempt. This was because the politicised disabled people involved in the seminar had had awful experiences of the NHS and at the hands of doctors hence their admirable drive to get involved in disability rights work. These people would have been badly treated, misdiagnosed, ignored, possibly abused and so were aggressively opposed to doctors deciding on their fate when they were incapacitated. They did not trust doctors to make decisions that they felt would be based on prejudiced views of a disabled patient’s quality of life. The health professionals in the room discussed the nature of resuscitation and how rarely it even works but it was difficult to shrug of the, in many cases well-founded, suspicion of doctors.

So my point is, that although these anecdotes may illustrate experiences that may lead people towards CAM or at least away from the NHS, not all women have had terrible experiences of doctors, feel alienated from the experience of the NHS or are in an extreme health situation. This makes me wonder whether gender inequality in society as a whole has some bearing on this. Is CAM more empowering for women? Is it because CAM sells you the facade that you are taking your health into your own hands? Is the communication of CAM better i.e. the therapeutic relationship is more important to many women? These are genuine questions, because I really don’t know.

Also, given Prof Ersnt’s suggestion that users of CAM are “around forty, female, fertile and … fucking mad” could there also be something in – now bear with me here – the tradition of the witch? The Witch has been a potent symbol for centuries and although it has been interpreted as a sexist stereotype of old, ugly women, the witch has also be reclaimed by feminists as the symbol of a strong, powerful if maleficent woman. (It important to point out the various cultural variations, e.g. in Central and Eastern European during the Middle Ages witches were believed to be male or female, witches being predominantly female is mostly a Western European conception, but that aside…)

Do female CAM practitioners fit in somewhere in the tradition of strong female ‘healers’? Is there any connection to the reclaiming of the ‘witch’ by feminists in the 60s/70s and its reinvention into the emancipatory goddess rituals? Of course I’m not blaming feminism for CAM, but it does seem likely that there is some connection between people feeling marginalised from ‘orthodox’ medicine and therefore veering into what are perceived as empowering alternatives. My only hope is that with the vastly increased number of female doctors coming up through the system this may have an affect on women’s perception of medicine.

2 Responses to “Women and CAM”

  • Martin Says:

    Great post – I’m pretty interested in the psychology/demographics involved in CAM, as I think it’s likely to give us the best approach to dealing with it.

    On the question you asked though, there’s one big thing that I’d add. Assuming women are more likely to get involved in CAM, has that actually got anything to do with CAM per se, or is it just a natural extention of women tending to be more involved in health in general, and more likely to see a doctor or seek treatment of any kind?

  • Jaime Says:

    I think you touched on all the possibilities, my mum used to be into it and from that I'd guess it was because doctors are usually middle class men discussing a personal illness in technical jargon which comes across as patronising and alienating to working class women whereas CAM is a way to be in control and 'educated' on the subject.

    I don't know what the statistics on class within CAM fans are but everyone around me was working class and definitely were distrustful of doctors for the above reasons, luckily my mum now has a lovely female doctor that she sings the praises of so thankfully seems to have given up on CAM.

Leave a Reply