Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine has a substantial franchise, and consumer attitudes indicate a favourable climate for growth in the area of health maintenance as well as curative treatment. But lack of endorsement or regulation by the medical establishme

Medical activities in the past six months – % all adults aged 15+ Visited a GP 62 Had a consultant’s appointment 30 Asked a pharmacist for advice or recommendation 27 Had been in hospital 15 Consulted an alternative health practitioner 11 Asked someone working in a health food shop for advice or recommendation 12 None of these 27

Conditions or complaints for which alternative medicine was used – % all adults Minor illness 19 Nervous or emotional problems 9 Serious illness 5 Hormonal or other life-stage problems 5 Diet-related problems 7 Any named consultation or use 29

Alternative medicine has been much in the news recently, and has acquired some high profile advocates. NOP’s exclusive research for Marketing Week examined ordinary people’s attitudes to and involvement in a wide range of therapies, treatments and medications, and included use of orthodox medical services and non-prescription drugs for comparison.

Just over six out of ten people aged 15 or over had consulted a general practitioner in the six months before mid-January 2001. Three out of ten had had a hospital consultant’s appointment; half as many -15 per cent – had actually been in hospital during that time. Still on orthodox lines, just over a quarter had asked a pharmacist for advice or recommendation.

By comparison, alternative practitioners catered for a smaller – but still numerically significant – sector. Eleven per cent had consulted an alternative health practitioner, and about the same number – 12 per cent – had “asked someone working in a health-food shop for advice or recommendation”.

NOP also asked what medicines or remedies people bought in the same six month period. Painkillers such as aspirin or paracetamol were easily the most popular, bought by seven out of ten adults; four out of ten people had purchased other over-the-counter pharmaceutical medicines, such as indigestion or cold remedies. However, supplementary and alternative pills and potions appealed to a surprisingly high proportion of the population. Four out of ten had bought vitamin tablets or capsules to maintain or improve their general health; 17 per cent had bought herbal medicine or remedies, and 11 per cent homeopathic remedies.

Alternative treatments, as opposed to medicines, have a very similar number of customers, even though they are more expensive and difficult to come by than the widely available medications such as the homeopathic Bach remedies and echinacea 17 per cent of adults had used at least one of the treatments on NOP’s list in the past six months.

Homeopathy was the most widely used treatment, used by six per cent of adults in the past six months; one per cent less had used chiropractic or osteopathy treatment. The other types of therapy attracted smaller audiences: three per cent had used acupuncture, and three per cent reflexology; two per cent had been to a faith-healer, and one per cent had used crystal therapy – but even this percentage represents something in the region of a quarter of a million people.

However, the overall experience of alternative medicine – as opposed to merely in the six months before the research – is considerably higher. Three out of ten adults had used alternative therapies for at least one of the five categories of conditions or complaints on NOP’s list.

The most significant usage was for minor illness, reaching nearly a fifth of all adults. Just under one in ten had tried alternative therapies for nervous or emotional problems. Five per cent had turned to them in serious illnesses, the same as for hormonal or other life-stage problems; seven per cent had tried alternative medicine for diet-related problems.

The alternative therapy consumer

Unlike orthodox medical services administered by the medical profession, which have higher usage among older people, alternative treatments cater for a more general market, with little age bias in usage. However, they share with orthodox medicine a higher rate of consultation and usage among women than men, which extends to vitamin supplements and painkillers. Herbal medicines, homeopathic remedies and vitamin supplements attract more than half their customers from upmarket (ABC1) households, although these make up only 48 per cent of the adult population.

Alternative treatments have a similar appeal. A fifth of ABC1s have had some alternative treatment in the past six months, compared with 15 per cent of C2Ds, and women made up 57 per cent of customers. Both medications and treatments have a strong regional bias: 41 per cent of treatment customers, and about the same proportion of those purchasing homeopathic or herbal remedies, came from the Southern third of the population.

Unsurprisingly, visits to doctors or consultants are more common among those who define themselves as in not very good, or poor, health. The same is not true, however, about usage of alternative treatments and medicines. This may be partly because the majority of alternative treatment is sought for “minor” illnesses; but it may also reflect the role of complementary medicine in maintaining health, as well as curing specific ailments.

Attitudes to alternative medicine

Most people seem to be keeping an open mind about alternative medicine, with the majority having no strong positive or negative feelings or opinions; however, the overall attitude seems to be favourable rather than pejorative.

Outright scepticism is definitely a minority trait. Only a fifth agreed strongly that “a lot of alternative therapists exploit people who are very ill”, and a similar proportion dismissed its real efficacy outright: “Most alternative medicine only works because people believe in it, rather than because it has any real healing ability”, although just under six out of ten people expressed some agreement with these sentiments. On the other hand, almost as many – 18 per cent – were strong supporters, declaring unequivocally that “I personally have benefited from alternative medicines or therapies” and another 23 per cent gave a more limited endorsement.

There is obviously some unease about the position of alternative treatments outside the health establishment. Three-quarters of all adults felt to some degree that “the medical establishment has a prejudice against other ways of healing”, and is therefore missing a trick in the fight against ill-health. Most notably, there is a strong desire that these therapies should be integrated into the mainstream by being taken under the wing of the medical establishment. Seven out of ten people felt strongly that “alternative therapists should be examined and licensed by the Health Service”, with only eight per cent dissenting completely.

Main Findings

– 17 per cent of adults bought herbal remedies and 11 per cent homeopathic remedies during August 2000 to January 2001

– 11 per cent of adults consulted an alternative practitioner in the same period and 12 per cent asked advice from a health-food shop

– 92 per cent of adults want alternative therapists licensed by the NHS

ANALYSIS: Elaine Hunt.

NOP Research Group interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults aged 15+ using its Weekend Omnibus

Vital Statistics

Medical activities in the past six months – % all adults aged 15+ Visited a GP 62 Had a consultant’s appointment 30 Asked a pharmacist for advice or recommendation 27 Had been in hospital 15 Consulted an alternative health practitioner 11 Asked someone working in a health food shop for advice or recommendation 12 None of these 27

Alternative treatments taken in the past 12 months – % all adults Chiropractic or osteopathy 5 Acupuncture 3 Crystal therapy 1 Faith healing 2 Homeopathy 6 Reflexology 3 Other 3

Conditions or complaints for which alternative medicine was used – % all adults Minor illness 19 Nervous or emotional problems 9 Serious illness 5 Hormonal or other life-stage problems 5 Diet-related problems 7 Any named consultation or use 29

Attitudes to alternative medicine % all adults agreeing A lot A little Not at all Alternative therapists should be examined and licensed by the NHS 69 23 8 The medical establishment has a prejudice against other ways of healing 31 44 25 A lot of alternative therapists exploit people who are very ill 21 42 37 Most alternative medicine only works because people believe in it, rather than because it has any real healing ability 21 47 38 I personally have benefited from alternative medicines or therapies 18 23 59

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