The use of herbal medicine, as one element of complementary and alternative medicine, is increasing worldwide. Little is known about the reasons for and factors associated with its use. This study derives insights for the use of herbal medicine in Germany regarding the usage aims, role played by the type of illness, reasons for preferred usage and sources of information.
Using a qualitative methodological approach, six focus groups (n = 46) were conducted. Two groups with young, middle-aged and elderly participants, respectively. After audiotaping and verbatim transcription, the data were analysed with a qualitative content analysis.
We found that treating illnesses was the most frequently discussed aim for using herbal medicine over all age groups. Preventing illnesses and promoting health were less frequently mentioned overall, but were important for elderly people. Discussions on herbal medicine were associated with either mild/moderate diseases or using herbal medicine as a starting treatment before applying conventional medicine. In this context, participants emphasized the limits of herbal medicine for severe illnesses. Dissatisfaction with conventional treatment, past good experiences, positive aspects associated with herbal medicine, as well as family traditions were the most commonly-mentioned reasons why herbal medicine was preferred as treatment. Concerning information sources, independent reading and family traditions were found to be equally or even more important than consulting medicinal experts.
Although herbal medicine is used mostly for treating mild to moderate illnesses and participants were aware of its limits, the combination of self-medication, non-expert consultation and missing risk awareness of herbal medicine is potentially harmful. This is particularly relevant for elderly users as, even though they appeared to be more aware of health-related issues, they generally use more medicine compared to younger ones. In light of our finding that dissatisfaction with conventional medicine was the most important reason for a preferred use of herbal medicine, government bodies, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies need to be aware of this problem and should aim to establish a certain level of awareness among users concerning this issue.