Consumer Theories of Medicine and the Implications for Healthy Lifestyles

WANG, Wenbo | KEH, Hean Tat | BOLTON, Lisa E

A consumer feels unwell and decides to buy some medicine to treat the illness. The local drug store offers a choice of Western or alternative remedies (such as TCM – traditional Chinese medicine), but the consumer’s choice may depend less on the stated effects of the medicine than his or her beliefs about the illness and goals in treating it.

TCM and other alternative medicines favor a holistic approach that is fundamentally different from the biomedical model that dominates Western medicine. Consumer beliefs about these two approaches can guide their preferences for one treatment over the other, according to research by Wenbo Wang, Hean Tat Keh and Lisa Bolton.

They found that when the diagnosis was uncertain, the desire was for a cure over symptom relief and the consumer had a longer timeframe in which he or she expected results, the preference was for alternative over Western medicine, and vice versa when the opposite conditions held. Moreover, consumer beliefs about Western and alternative medicines also impacted on healthy lifestyle choices.

The findings are of interest to health marketers, among others, because of the implications for pitching health products to consumers.

“Consumers today face a wide array of choice options in seeking remedies for illness or disease. In many countries medical pluralism is the norm, with Western and traditional medicines existing side by side in the marketplace,” they said.

“From a substantive perspective, a comparison of the two approaches has important implications for remedy marketing, medical pluralism, and consumer health and welfare.”

The authors conducted five experiments to test the effect of “lay theories” about medicine on consumer choice to show, first, that when diagnosis uncertainty was high, participants who were primed with images associated with alternative medicines – the yin-yang symbol of TCM and the lotus of Ayurvedic medicine – preferred these remedies over Western ones.

“The basic tenet of Western medicine is rigorous identification of cause-effect or disease-symptom relationships. In contrast, TCM and Ayurvedic medicine adopt a theoretical approach that accommodates more uncertainty and ambiguity; rather than treating a single ailment or symptom, they pay more attention to the whole body,” they said.

Similarly, consumer goals tilted the preference to one approach over the other. When the participants were presented with a diagnosis that was uncertain and the aim was for a cure over a longer period of time, they favored TCM. But when the diagnosis was more certain and the goal was to alleviate symptoms in a short time frame, they preferred Western medicine.

“TCM has been characterized as having mild and slow action, curing the underlying disease by correcting the imbalance of yin and yang. In contrast, a focus on alleviating symptoms quickly is more consistent with Western medicine,” they said.

A final area of investigation was the impact of the preferences on healthy lifestyle intentions. “Prior research suggests Western drugs may be perceived as ‘get out of jail free cards’ that undermine the perceived importance of and motivation to engage in health-protective behaviors,” the authors said. Their experiments supported this finding but also showed that intervention, in the form of specific instruction to engage in a healthy lifestyle, could mitigate the effect.

The experiments were conducted variously among Chinese, Indian and Asian American participants, giving a cross-cultural context to the study, and provide important insights for healthcare research and marketers.

“Marketers may be able to leverage their understanding of consumer lay theories of medicine to improve remedy marketing. For example, in the Chinese marketplace Western medicine is perceived as a quick fix of symptoms and marketers may attempt to change those beliefs, such as persuading consumers of the curative powers of Western medicine, or perhaps turn them to advantage by, for example, emphasizing the importance of a fast recovery,” they said.

WANG, Wenbo

Associate Professor