Why Patients Use Alternative Medicine: Results of a National Study | Complementary and Alternative Medicine | JAMA | JAMA Network
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Original Contribution
May 20, 1998

Why Patients Use Alternative Medicine: Results of a National Study

Author Affiliations

From the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, Calif.

JAMA. 1998;279(19):1548-1553. doi:10.1001/jama.279.19.1548

Context.— Research both in the United States and abroad suggests that significant numbers of people are involved with various forms of alternative medicine. However, the reasons for such use are, at present, poorly understood.

Objective.— To investigate possible predictors of alternative health care use.

Methods.— Three primary hypotheses were tested. People seek out these alternatives because (1) they are dissatisfied in some way with conventional treatment; (2) they see alternative treatments as offering more personal autonomy and control over health care decisions; and (3) the alternatives are seen as more compatible with the patients' values, worldview, or beliefs regarding the nature and meaning of health and illness. Additional predictor variables explored included demographics and health status.

Design.— A written survey examining use of alternative health care, health status, values, and attitudes toward conventional medicine. Multiple logistic regression analyses were used in an effort to identify predictors of alternative health care use.

Setting and Participants.— A total of 1035 individuals randomly selected from a panel who had agreed to participate in mail surveys and who live throughout the United States.

Main Outcome Measure.— Use of alternative medicine within the previous year.

Results.— The response rate was 69%.The following variables emerged as predictors of alternative health care use: more education (odds ratio [OR], 1.2; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.1-1.3); poorer health status (OR, 1.3; 95% CI, 1.1-1.5); a holistic orientation to health (OR, 1.4; 95% CI, 1.1-1.9); having had a transformational experience that changed the person's worldview (OR, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.3-2.5); any of the following health problems: anxiety (OR, 3.1; 95% CI, 1.6-6.0); back problems (OR, 2.3; 95% CI, 1.7-3.2); chronic pain (OR, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.1-3.5); urinary tract problems (OR, 2.2; 95% CI, 1.3-3.5); and classification in a cultural group identifiable by their commitment to environmentalism, commitment to feminism, and interest in spirituality and personal growth psychology (OR, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.4-2.7). Dissatisfaction with conventional medicine did not predict use of alternative medicine. Only 4.4% of those surveyed reported relying primarily on alternative therapies.

Conclusion.— Along with being more educated and reporting poorer health status, the majority of alternative medicine users appear to be doing so not so much as a result of being dissatisfied with conventional medicine but largely because they find these health care alternatives to be more congruent with their own values, beliefs, and philosophical orientations toward health and life.