Complementary Medicine in South Africa

Complementary medicine in South Africa encompasses a wide range of therapies ranging from traditional practices that have only recently been regulated to widely accepted alternative therapies that are recognised by medical aids within the country. It is estimated that up to 70% of the South African population will consult with a complementary health practitioner before seeking conventional medical help and traditional African medicine is by far the most popular alternative therapy in South Africa.

What types of complementary health therapies are available?

Most complementary health systems have similar fundamental principle which are focussed more on the body’s own healing ability to restore health and maintain wellness. Most are rooted in traditional and cultural practices from different parts of the world and have been used for several hundred or even thousands of years.

A few, such as chiropractic and homeopathy, are relatively new. Modern science has been able to assist the complementary health fraternity with proving and refuting certain claims. Some of the common complementary health practices within South Africa include :

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine)
  • Aromatherapy
  • Homeopathy (homoeopathy)
  • Western herbal medicine (phytotherapy)
  • Naturopathy
  • Chiropractic
  • Osteopathy
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Reflexology
  • Unani Medicine (Persian-Arabic medicine)

Are these complementary therapies recognised?

The South African Department of Health recognises all of the above health practices and South African medical aids now pay for most of these therapies. Professional councils, such as the Allied Health Professions Council, regulate and monitor  complementary health practices and professionals.

This ensures that the public is protected from unscrupulous and illegitimate therapists while maintaining an educational standard in the training of complementary health practitioners. However, traditional African medicine has often not enjoyed the same recognition. Medical schemes do not pay for these therapies and many traditional African healers are not regulated by a council.

How do I know that the practitioner is reputable?

It is advisable that you request a therapist’s professional association details to verify their legitimacy. This should include their council registration number and practice number if the therapy is recognised by medical schemes. Most council’s and professional associations have a practitioner list on their website where you can find a registered therapist in your area.

If any complementary health practitioner is not registered with the relevant association or council then they should not be practicing the respective therapy in South Africa. It is against the law and most importantly the patient is not protected against malpractice. It is important to note that even though medical schemes will not pay for all complementary health therapies, this does not mean that the respective therapy is not legitimate and regulated by some professional council.