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BMC Health Serv Res. 2008 Aug 12;8:173. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-8-173.

Designing a 'NHS friendly' complementary therapy service: a qualitative case study.

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Academic Unit of Primary Health Care, University of Bristol, 25 Belgrave Road, Bristol BS8 2AA, UK.



Provision of complementary therapy services within the NHS is scarce and contested. However, their adoption may be more likely in a service model that is designed to the specifications of clinicians and Primary Care Trust (PCT) managers. Our objective was to identify the features of a 'NHS friendly' service to inform service designers who wish to develop NHS complementary therapy services.


Using a case study approach, two sites offering complementary therapies on NHS premises were studied using interview and documentary data. We conducted interviews with 20 NHS professionals, including PCT managers and clinicians. We used descriptive content analysis to analyse interview data. We collected and analysed documentation, such as referral data, funding bids and evaluations, to compare reported and documented behaviour.


Ideally, a 'NHS friendly' complementary therapy service should offer a limited number of therapies for a specific condition for high priority patient populations (e.g. acupuncture for addictions). In this service model, the therapies should be perceived to have 'good' evidence for conditions where there are 'effectiveness gaps' (i.e. current treatments are limited). The service should be evaluated and regularly promoted. Inter-professional relationships would flourish through opportunities for informal contact and formal interactions, such as observations of consultations. However, the service should include gatekeeper mechanisms to control demand and avoid picking up 'unmet need' (i.e. individuals currently not accessing NHS services). The complementary therapy service should pay for itself and reduce NHS costs elsewhere, such as hospital admissions.


The service design model identified in this study is problematic. For example, it is contradictory to provide specific interventions for specific conditions within a holistic healthcare framework. It is difficult to avoid providing for 'unmet need' while concurrently filling 'effectiveness gaps'. In addition, demonstrating the impact of a community service on reducing hospital admissions is challenging. Those seeking to establish a NHS complementary therapy service might be well-advised to meet as many of the criteria of a 'NHS friendly' model as possible, recognising that its full realisation may be impossible. However, during periods of innovation and financial security, some relaxation of expectations may occur.

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