Are you feeling well today?

The rise of wellness has been driven by health spa’s need to make money and people’s scepticism towards conventional medicine. A thought on wellness beyond beauty.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Wellness has long been a concern of the older generations. Backed by a government-funded programme of preventive treatment and rehabilitation, European Spas used to cater to those who already felt that little pain in their back, had problems with their nerves, skin diseases, or other conditions that threatened to create large costs for insurance companies if they remained untreated. The economic rationale was clear: if you feel a little sick, we pay you to prevent it from becoming worse.

Not anymore:  treatments are now offered to those who don’t know yet that they have to be cured. Wellness is aiming to create well-being, a well-being that can be increased. It is then no longer only a response to a demand, but also a market that seeks to create the demand through new and every more “alternative” ways of making you feel “well”.

Do you feel well?

Patients are increasingly seen as consumers that do not choose therapies and medical products by their functional value but rather by the value of beauty and aesthetics, often promoted as exotic or entertaining experiences. As such, they are closely tied to a contemporary conception of beauty and aesthetics as a form of value that can be achieved, whether by plastic surgery, sport, or… wellness.

For instance, there is an increasing demand for so-called “high touch” offers: they combine high-tech treatments with a more personal, individualized service that should satisfy the consumer emotionally as well. These therapies are tailored to the individual person.  Many wellness resorts are in health-spas with a tradition of healing that reaches back into the past centuries.

Relaxing among sick people? Wellness where severe diseases are being cured? This isn’t all too surprising, says the Chief Medical Officer of one health resort clinic: there is much more Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in health spa resorts than anywhere else. Ready to pay for treatment themselves, clients who don’t believe in conventional medicine anymore, or at least do not fully trust in it, are seeking exotic treatments.And health Spas are ready to offer them.

The changing face of wellness

Profound changes in European health-care systems in the late eighties plunged health spas into severe crisis. This had serious impact on nearby hotels, which were in urgent need to raise occupancy rates. Soon a solution was found: hoteliers enticed new customers into the resorts by offering wellness-treatments which had previously been tailored to the health conscious generation 50 plus. A new market was created. Fast growing in popularity, these wellness offers built on the health spas’ high quality facilities, together creating an entirely new approach to preventive medicine: medical-wellness. Medical-wellness as a link between biomedicine and what is probably best explaind as behavioural-medicine opened up a new market for self-paying patients next to the traditional health spa medicine that is still practised there.

However, wellness doesn’t mean the same thing in Europe as in its country of origin, the United States: to American readers, already this article’s headline must appear a little odd for wellness was developed as a genuine faction of health there as early as 1961 by Halbert Dunn, sometimes called “the father of the wellness movement”. Wellness as a holistic concept of health understands health as a well-being to be achieved rather than an illness to be cured. In Central Europe, however, it was not only established twenty to thirty years later than in the USA, but it also lost its original notion of health-care. Instead, Wellness is settled in a complex field of health, relaxation, body styling and being pampered. It should restore the physical and mental equilibrium and give short-term satisfaction of needs and enjoyment in the moment. Wellness in this sense has become primarily associated with cosmetics, massages and saunas.

Wellness in the market place

One can observe something in the field of medicine that is quite similar to what was described in the field of religion back in the 1960s: market orientation. In particular, both institutions – medicine and religion – have suffered a decrease in their monopoly of interpretation. According to scholar of religion Anne Koch a shift is taking place in what is to be perceived as “healing”, “sustainable” and “healthy” at large. This is not so much about validity claims but about the distribution of clients, patients or users. One can look at the medical field as a market place: healer and patient- like supply and demand – are in an interdependent relationship, sustaining each other. The result is emerging conflicts over distribution in the medical field. In such an environment,  market access for CAM-methods has become a lot easier. Health care economist Miriam Thanner states that some doctors were constantly striving to adopt the methods they had originally objected as soon as a new market for those methods was there.

All this poses an inconvenient question: Are patients really offered the best possible treatment to cure their diseases, or are the specific forms of treatment created by an economic rationality and the parallel trends of fashionable practices? Obviously, also the question of reimbursements by insurance companies is a tricky one here, as health-value and market-value intermix.

However, the cultural transfers of Eastern medicine and Western alternative therapies into mainstream medicine has lead to an interesting synthesis. Conventional medicine and alternative medicine coexist and complement each other. This is taken for granted by many physicians nowadays. Medicine is not a doctrine cast in stone. Its practices are negotiated through experiment and through various types of discourse, the one about wellness being one of them.

Considering the continuing popularity of wellness, it is quite possible that a rising demand of medical wellness treatments will affect the medical system as a whole. If the economic rationality as outlined in this article will promote fashionable CAM-methods, the basic assumptions of health and healing might change in general as to be observed in the field of health spa medicine already. Thus, while one can clearly see the market forces behind the wellness trend, the same development may also lead to an increasing opening in the field of conventional medicine to more alternative concepts of health and well-being.


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