ResearchBlogging.orgI often read that the reason people are turning to complementary/alternative/integrative(take your pick) medicine is because they are dissatisfied with the care received from mainstream/conventional/”western”* medicine. This may be true for a small segment of the population, those with a chronic illness or with terminal cancer spring to mind. But is this generally true of altmed users? Those who pick up a bottle of homeopathic remedy from the pharmacy or occasionally visit a naturopath?

I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. A study “Why Patients Use Alternative Medicine” published in 1998 in the JAMA looked at this question using a survey sent to randomly selected participants. 1500 participants were sent the survey and 1035 completed it. Not too bad for a survey response rate.

The survey was geared to look at the use of altmed based on three paradigms:

“1. Dissatisfaction: Patients are dissatisfied with conventional treatment because it has been ineffective,5-6 has produced adverse effects, or is seen as impersonal, too technologically oriented, and/or too costly.

2. Need for personal control: Patients seek alternative therapies because they see them as less authoritarian16 and more empowering and as offering them more personal autonomy and control over their health care decisions.

3. Philosophical congruence: Alternative therapies are attractive because they are seen as more compatible with patients’ values, worldview, spiritual/religious philosophy, or beliefs regarding the nature and meaning of health and illness.”

According to the survey results satisfaction, or lack thereof,  with conventional medicine did not correlate well with altmed use. 54% of respondents reported being “highly satisfied” with conventional medicine providers, of these 39% use alternative therapies. Of those who were highly dissatisfied (40%) only 9% were users of altmed.

It seemed as if those who were fans of medicine overall were more likely to participate in both camps. A sort of “the more the merrier” approach to health care.

What was predictive of alternative medicine use was personal philosophy. Those who considered there to be a strong mind/body/spirit connection as well as those who had had a “transformational experience” were more likely to use alt med than those who did not.

Education and health status also correlated with altmed use. Those with higher educations were more likely to use it, as were those who described themselves as having a lower health status.

The situation was slightly different for those who shunned conventional medicine altogether in order to embrace altmed. These folks tended to be distrustful of and dissatisfied with conventional practitioners, as well they desired a high degree of control over their health and believed in the importance and value of “inner experiences”.

This proportion of the population was quite small however – only 4.4% of the survey respondents fell into this group. Even so somehow the reasons for this group’s embrace of altmed has been generalised to the wider population.

The observation that users of altmed tend to be greater consumers of health services overall is also supported by the paper “Association Between Use of Unconventional Therapies and Conventional Medical Services“. This survey had a base of 16,068 individuals from which to pull data representing a 77% response rate from the 24,676 pool that was originally sampled.

According to this survey only 6.5% of the population use both altmed and conventional medicine** (and 1.8% using only altmed), with this group making more visits to their physician than those who used conventional medicine only. One possible reason for this is the so-called “worried well”, a portion of the population that focuses on their health to a degree higher than would be expected given their health status. Support for this is given within the paper:

“Compared with those with only conventional visits, those who used both types of care had significantly more outpatient physician visits (7.9 vs 5.4; P<.001), and used more of all types of preventive services except mammography. These groups did not differ significantly in inpatient care, prescription drug use, or number of emergency department visits.”

This on it’s own does not show a “worried well” connection but in the comments section of the paper it was noted:

“…there was no difference in any of the 4 self-reported health measures between respondents who had physician visits only, and those who had those visits in conjunction with unconventional therapy. Poor health status appeared to drive use of health services in general, that is, those using no services reported better health than those using either conventional medical services or unconventional therapies. However, poor health was not associated with increased use of unconventional therapies over and above conventional medical care.” [emphasis added]

So it would seem, at least in this sample, that dissatisfaction with conventional care cannot be the driving force for the majority of altmed users. More plausible is that altmed users seek to make the most of every perceived avenue for health.

Another survey published in 2001 also supported the general conclusion that dissatisfaction with conventional medicine does not lead to altmed use for most consumers. “Perceptions about Complementary Therapies Relative to Conventional Therapies among Adults Who Use Both: Results from a National Survey” surveyed 831 respondents who used both regular and alternative medicine.

Of these 70% would visit a conventional medicine practitioner as their first port of call. Only 15% went to a altmed provider first. There was also no significant difference in the level of confidence in altmed providers and regular medical professionals.

To quote the conclusion:

“National survey data do not support the view that use of CAM therapy in the United States primarily reflects dissatisfaction with conventional care.”

From a paper presented at the Proceedings of the 1997 Conference of
the Australian Association for Social Research and published in the Journal of Sociology; “Postmodern values, dissatisfaction with conventional medicine and popularity of alternative therapies“[PDF File download]:

“Those individuals who value natural remedies, are against chemical drugs, do not favour technological progress, and welcome variety in choice of therapy are more likely to have a positive attitude towards alternative medicine.”

These attitudes were enveloped under the “postmodern” rubric and were found to be a better predictor of altmed use than satisfaction levels with regard the conventional medicine.

To elaborate on that point, a further finding was that dissatisfaction with interactions with physicians rather than health outcomes was associated altmed use. This is a subtle point and worth dwelling on as it seems to be a valid criticism of the way in which conventional medicine is practised. It was not that altmed users were unhappy with the actual results of the care received via conventional medicines but the way in which they feel they are treated by doctors.

It seems that those turning to altmed may feel that conventional doctors do not give enough respect, time, don’t listen and are too authoritative. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this perspective as it isn’t entirely consistent with the picture built up so far and the sample size of this survey was relatively small compared with the ones above (only 209 respondents), but it is worth considering.

In conclusion, while it might be true that some dissatisfaction does lead to an increase in the use of alternative medicine it seems unlikely to me that this is the main reason. I’m not sure why it has become the go-to reason trotted out by participants on both sides of the debate, ease I suppose. I could of course be wrong, perhaps there is a mountain of research out there that I’ve missed pointing in the complete opposite direction. I’m willing to grant that possibility, in the absence of such though I’ll have to go with personal philosophy being the largest contributing reason people use altmed.


*I hate with a passion the label “Western Medicine”, what? – people from other cultures can’t use science? Nonsense.

** I suspect that the wildly differing definitions of what constitutes “Alternative” medicine are to be blamed for the fluctuating figures around the proportion of users.

Astin, J. (1998). Why Patients Use Alternative Medicine: Results of a National Study JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 279 (19), 1548-1553 DOI: 10.1001/jama.279.19.1548

Eisenberg DM, Kessler RC, Van Rompay MI, Kaptchuk TJ, Wilkey SA, Appel S, & Davis RB (2001). Perceptions about complementary therapies relative to conventional therapies among adults who use both: results from a national survey. Annals of internal medicine, 135 (5), 344-51 PMID: 11529698

Druss, B. (1999). Association Between Use of Unconventional Therapies and Conventional Medical Services JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 282 (7), 651-656 DOI: 10.1001/jama.282.7.651

Siahpush, M. (1998). Postmodern values, dissatisfaction with conventional medicine and popularity of alternative therapies Journal of Sociology, 34 (1), 58-70 DOI: 10.1177/144078339803400106

Aditional reading:

Joy, J.M. (2004). Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM): Do Barriers to and Dissatisfaction with Traditional Care Affect CAM Utilization Patterns, Masters Thesis, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

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