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More adults are using complementary and alternative medicine in England but access is unequal, finds survey

Press release issued: 14 November 2018

Use of practitioner-led complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), such as acupuncture, massage, osteopathy and chiropractic treatment, rose from 12% of the population in 2005 to 16% of the population in 2015, according to a survey led by researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care. However, access to these treatments was unequal, with women, those who are better off and those in the south of England more likely to use CAM.

The survey, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, undertaken by Ipsos MORI and published in BJGP Open today [14 November], asked adults in England about their CAM use in the last 12 months. Out of a representative sample of 4,862 respondents aged 15 and over, 766 (16%) said they had seen a CAM practitioner.

More women than men and more people in higher socioeconomic groups (A-C) than in lower socioeconomic groups (D-E) used CAM. CAM use was almost twice as high in the south of England compared with the North and Midlands.

The majority of CAM users either paid for treatment themselves or had it paid for by friends or family (67%). Most CAM users self-referred (either found the practitioners themselves or through a recommendation from a friend or family) (70%). A small proportion were referred by their GP (17%) or other health professional (4%) and more of these were from lower socioeconomic groups.

The main reasons for CAM use were for musculoskeletal problems, particularly back pain (38%), and other musculoskeletal pain (neck pain, shoulder pain or knee pain) (22%). Mental health accounted for 12% of CAM use, including for minor depression, anxiety or stress (7%) and sleep problems, tiredness or fatigue (4%).

CAM use was fairly evenly spread across all age groups.

Professor Debbie Sharp, from the Centre for Academic Primary Care and lead author of the study, said:

“This survey shows that CAM is widely used by the general population, especially for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, with a slight increase in use since 2005. Access, however, is unequal and most people who see a CAM practitioner are better off and pay for it themselves. We also asked about people’s willingness to pay for CAM and found, unsurprisingly, that it seemed to be based on ability to pay. However, 13% of non-CAM users said they would be willing to part-pay if the NHS or other organisations paid the rest.”

Dr Ava Lorenc, co-author from the Centre for Academic Primary Care, added:

“Current UK health policy advocates patient-centred care and has a focus on prevention and patient self-management. Greater integration of CAM services into NHS primary care could address the inequality in access that we found, for example, through social prescribing. This survey was part of a wider scoping study for a trial to test the effectiveness of CAM for people with both musculoskeletal and mental health problems, which we hope will add to the evidence-base for CAM.”

Paper: Complementary medicine use, views and experiences – a national survey in England by Deborah Sharp, Ava Lorenc, Richard Morris, Gene Feder, Paul Little, Sandra Hollinghurst, Stewart Mercer and Hugh MacPherson. Published in BJGP Open. 14 November 2018.

Further information

Download the CAM survey infographic (PDF, 183kB)

Related papers

Scoping review of systematic reviews of complementary medicine for musculoskeletal and mental health conditions by Ava Lorenc, Gene Feder, Hugh MacPherson, Paul Little, Stewart Mercer and Deborah Sharp. BMJ Open. October 2018.

Complementary medicine and the NHS: Experiences of integration with UK primary care by Deborah Sharp, Ava Lorenc, Paul Little, Stewart Mercer, Sandra Hollinghurst, Gene Feder and Hugh MacPherson. European Journal of Integrative Medicine. Forthcoming: December 2018.

Trying to put a square peg into a roundhole’: a qualitative study of healthcare professionals’views of integrating complementary medicine into primary care for musculoskeletal and mental health comorbidity by Deborah Sharp, Ava Lorenc, Gene Feder, Paul Little, Sandra Hollinghurst, Stewart Mercer and Hugh MacPherson. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. October 2018.

About the Centre for Academic Primary Care
The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) at the University of Bristol is a leading centre for primary care research in the UK, one of nine forming the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. It sits within Bristol Medical School, an internationally recognised centre of excellence for population health research and teaching. Follow us on Twitter: @capcbristol.

This research was funded by the NIHR Policy Research Programme. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

About the National Institute for Health Research
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): improving the health and wealth of the nation through research.
Established by the Department of Health and Social Care, the NIHR:

• funds high quality research to improve health
• trains and supports health researchers
• provides world-class research facilities
• works with the life sciences industry and charities to benefit all
• involves patients and the public at every step

For further information, visit the NIHR website

About the research
Ipsos MORI conducted interviews on behalf of Bristol University using a face-to-face omnibus approach, among 4,862 adults aged 15+ in England. Fieldwork was conducted between the 25th of September and 19th October 2015. Data is weighted to match the profile of the English population.

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