Medical Pluralism in the U.S.

Range of Belief Systems

Elders from any one ethnic background may or may not know, or may not espouse, the health beliefs connected with their traditional heritage. It is important for providers to be familiar with the range of belief systems found in the U.S. Yet, it is imperative not to assume, based on ethnic backgrounds, that any individual maintains those beliefs. Practitioners should be aware of the distinct explanatory models of illness among elderly persons from all cultural backgrounds, and explore the meanings of illness, which may be unique to the individual. Causes of illness may be attributed to cultural constructions or idioms.

Interactive Nature

Health care can be viewed as a local system composed of three overlapping sectors. It is necessary to understand the interactive nature of these sectors, particularly for subgroups of older Americans who have affiliations with other cultural traditions of medicine.


The professional sector including organized healing traditions, which are considered the dominant healing paradigm. In the U.S., it is Western biomedicine.

Popular Sector vs. Folk Sector

The popular sector includes self-treatment, family care, and socially based networks of care.

The folk sector includes practitioners and healers who use alternative therapies based on paradigms outside of the dominant (e.g. biomedical) model.