Nurses who left the British NHS for private complementary medical practice: why did they leave? Would they return?


Gavin Andrews,
Faculty of Nursing,
University of Toronto,
50 St George Street,
Ontario M5S 3H4,


Background. Although the successful retention of National Health Service (NHS) nursing staff is a policy concern, evidence suggests that substantial numbers of registered nurses continue to leave the profession, and some to own and run small caring-related business. At the same time, private complementary medicine has undergone a rapid expansion in recent years, and initial impressionistic evidence suggests that many therapists are former nurses.

Aims. The paper investigates the motivations and experiences of nurses who have either left nursing altogether, or substantially reduced their involvement, and who now practise complementary medicine in the private sector. It also investigates the issue of whether they would consider returning to practise complementary medicine within the NHS.

Methods. A combined questionnaire (n  = 63) and semi-structured interview (n  = 11) survey was used to collect detailed attitudinal data from respondents. The analytical approach to the interview data used a form of constant comparative analysis which was derived from the principles of grounded theory. In particular, the interviews were developed and refined from each other as they progressed.

Results. The majority of therapists operate independently, either from their own homes or from small rented premises. They were originally motivated by a disillusionment with the health service and particular aspects of their former jobs. However, equally they were attracted by the therapies themselves, the conceptual paradigms which underpin them and the different experiences of practice. Despite stating a disillusionment with the NHS, most respondents expressed a cautious willingness to potentially re-enter the NHS to practise complementary medicine.

Conclusion. Many practising complementary therapists are registered nurses who may be willing to re-enter the formal health service. It is therefore argued that a greater synergy between orthodox and complementary medicine may be one way of addressing shortages of nursing labour, and in particular this form of drop-out, whilst meeting evolving consumer health care demands.