Background: To determine the prevalence and cost of alternative medicines and alternative practitioner use in an Australian population.
Methods: We conducted a representative population survey of persons aged 15 or older living in South Australia, which required 3004 personal interviews. We assessed the rates of use and types of alternative medicine and therapists used by this population in 1993, and correlations with other demographic and medical variables.
Findings: The overall use of at least one non-medically prescribed alternative medicine (excluding calcium, iron and prescribed vitamins) was 48.5%. The users were more likely to be perimenopausal females, better educated, have a higher alcohol intake, be of normal weight and more likely to be employed than non-users. 20.3% of respondents had visited at least one alternative practitioner, most commonly chiropractors (15%). The users of alternative practitioners were more likely to be younger, live in the country and be overweight. Women were more likely to consult naturopaths, iridiologists, and reflexologists than men.
Interpretation: Extrapolation of the costs to the Australian population gives a natural expenditure in 1993, for alternative medicines, of $621 million (Australian dollars) and for alternative therapists of $AU309 million per annum. This compares to the $AU360 million of patient contributions for all classes of pharmaceutical drugs purchased in Australia in 1992/93. The public health and economic ramifications of these huge costs are questioned in view of the paucity of sound safety and efficacy data for many of the therapies and products of the alternative medicine industry.