MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

I have often cautioned about what I call the ‘survey mania’ in alternative medicine. Yet, once in a while, an informative survey gets published. Take this recent survey, for instance:

It was based on a design-based logistic regression analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS), Round 7. The researchers distinguished 4 modalities: manual therapies, alternative medicinal systems, traditional Asian medical systems and mind-body therapies.

In total, 25.9% of the general population had used at least one of these therapies during the last 12 months which was around one-third of the proportion of those who had visited a general practitioner (76.3%). Typically, only one treatment had been used, and it was used more often as complementary rather than alternative treatment. The usage varied greatly by country (see Table 1 below). Compared to those in good health, the use of CAM was two to fourfold greater among those with health problems. The health profiles of users of different CAM modalities varied. For example, back or neck pain was associated with all types of CAM, whereas depression was associated only with the use of mind-body therapies. Individuals with difficult to diagnose health conditions were more inclined to utilize CAM, and CAM use was more common among women and those with a higher education. Lower income was associated with the use of mind-body therapies, whereas the other three CAM modalities were associated with higher income.

The authors concluded that help-seeking differed according to the health problem, something that should be acknowledged by clinical professionals to ensure safe care. The findings also point towards possible socioeconomic inequalities in health service use.

As I said, this is one of the rare surveys that is worth studying in some detail. This is mainly because it is rigorous and its results are clearly presented. Much of what it reports has been known before (for instance, we showed that the use of CAM in the UK was 26% which ties in perfectly with the 21% figure considering that here only 4 CAMs were included), but it is undoubtedly valuable to see it confirmed based on sound methodology.

Apart of what the abstract tells us, there are some hidden gems from this paper:

  • 8% of CAM users had used CAM exclusively (alternative use), without any visits to biomedical professionals in the last 12 months. This may look like a low figure, but I would argue that it is worryingly high considering that alternative usage of CAM has the potential to hasten patients’ deaths.
  • The most frequently used CAM treatment was massage therapy, used by 11.9% of the population, followed by homeopathy (5.7%), osteopathy (5.2%), herbal treatments (4.6%), acupuncture (3.6%), chiropractic (2.3%), reflexology (1.7%) and spiritual healing (1.3%). Other modalities (Chinese medicine, acupressure and hypnotherapy) were used by around by 1% or less. The figure for homeopathy is MUCH smaller that the ones homeopaths want us to believe.
  • About 9% of healthy survey-participants had used at least one of the CAM modalities during the last 12 months. One can assume that this usage was mostly for disease-prevention. But there is no good evidence for CAM to be effective for this purpose.
  • The highest ORs for the use of Traditional Asian Medical Systems were found in Denmark, Switzerland and Israel, followed by Austria, Norway and Sweden. The highest OR for the use of Alternative Medical Systems was found in Lithuania, while manual therapies were most commonly used in Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. Moreover, Denmark, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania had the highest ORs for using mind-body therapies. France, Spain and Germany presented a common pattern, with relatively similar use of the different modalities. Poland and Hungary had low ORs for use of the different CAM modalities.

But by far the nicest gem, however, comes from my favourite source of misinformation on matters of health, WDDTY. They review the new survey and state this: The patients are turning to alternatives for a range of chronic conditions because they consider the conventional therapy to be inadequate, the researchers say. Needless to point out that this is not a theme that was addressed by the new survey, and therefore its authors also do not draw this conclusion.

6 Responses to Survey data show that, in Europe, homeopathy and other alt meds are used by only a minority

  • Thank you for mentioning this very interesting figures! I am ‘proud to be Dutch’, as we seem to keep quackery down to a certain extent. We (together with Portugal) are doing better than all other European countries. I can add to the Dutch figures that in 2014 5,5% of the Dutch population consulted an alternative practioner in a face to face meeting. This means that 8,6% of the ESS figures comes down on self help, buying herbs, homeopathic drugs et cetera.

  • I’m not sure why homeopathy is singled out from the other CAM modalities for the title of this post. Should it not have read “Survey data show that, in Europe, complementary and alternative medicine is used by only a tiny minority”. From the data, homeopathy was the second most common modality chosen, while Chinese medicine, acupressure and hypnotherapy were used by the tiniest minorities.

    • my reason: the others do not try as hard to convince us that their therapy is so highly popular.
      but you have a point and I therefore just changed the title a bit.

  • “… the others do not try as hard to convince us that their therapy is so highly popular.” Indeed!

  • Desperate folks take desperate measures.

    And I would not put ‘massage therapy’ (apparently the most popular) in the camistry bracket – such ‘therapy’ is simply comforting without claims to be ‘healing’ anything.
    It is ‘condimentary medicine’ – provides pleasure but has no effect on any pathological process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Gravityscan Badge

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories