Intended for healthcare professionals


Healer shopping in Africa: new evidence from rural-urban qualitative study of Ghanaian diabetes experiences

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 29 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:737
  1. Ama de-Graft Aikins, ESRC postdoctoral fellow (ada21{at}
  1. 1Department of Social and Developmental Psychology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3RQ
  • Accepted 31 August 2005


Objectives To provide counterevidence to existing literature on healer shopping in Africa through a systematic analysis of illness practices by Ghanaians with diabetes; to outline approaches towards improving patient centred health care and policy development regarding diabetes in Ghana.

Design Longitudinal qualitative study with individual interviews, group interviews, and ethnographies.

Settings Two urban towns (Accra, Tema) and two rural towns (Nkoranza and Kintampo) in Ghana.

Participants 26 urban people and 41 rural people with diabetes with diverse profiles (sex, age, education, socioeconomic status, diabetes status).

Results Six focus groups, 20 interviews, and three ethnographical studies were conducted to explore experiences and illness practices. Analysis identified four kinds of illness practice: biomedical management, spiritual action, cure seeking (passive and active), and medical inaction. Most participants privileged biomedicine over other health systems and emphasised biomedical management as ideal self care practice. However, the psychosocial impact of diabetes and the high cost of biomedical care drove cure seeking and medical inaction. Cure seeking constituted healer shopping between biomedicine, ethnomedicine, and faith healing; medical inaction constituted passive disengagement from medical management and active engagement with faith healing. Crucially, although spiritual causal theories of diabetes existed, they were secondary to dietary, lifestyle, and physiological theories and did not constitute the primary motivation for cure seeking. Cure seeking within unregulated ethnomedical systems and non-pharmacological faith healing systems exacerbated the complications of diabetes.

Conclusions To minimise inappropriate healer shopping and maximise committed biomedical and regulated ethnomedical management for Ghanaians with diabetes, the greatest challenges lie in providing affordable pharmaceutical drugs, standardised ethnomedical drugs, recommended foods, and psychosocial support. For health systems, the greatest challenges lie in correcting structural deficiencies that impinge on biomedical practices, regulating ethnomedical diabetes treatment, and foregrounding faith healer practices within diabetes policy discussions.


  • Contributors AdGA did all urban English, Twi, and Fanti interviews and focus groups and coded all transcripts. Research contributors included Danso Yeboah, Judith Parry, and Mr Osei, who did rural Bono interviews and focus groups; Adote Anum, who did the urban Ga focus group; Love Debrah, Sammy Boafo, Regina Insaidoo, and Evelyn Tieku, who assisted in translating and transcribing transcripts. Anna Tetevie coded selected English individual and group interview transcripts.

  • Funding Occasional student maintenance grants from the London School of Economics Financial Office.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethical approval Ghana Medical School ethics committee.

  • Accepted 31 August 2005
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