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When I get that feeling, I want spiritual healing - Alternative medicine use in Europe

Posted on 22 February 2017 by NatCen, Research

This is the first in a series of short blogs looking at health and wellbeing findings from the latest European Social Survey (ESS).

Anecdotally we might think that the use of alternative, non-mainstream medicine has been increasing in Britain, especially with high profile advocates like Prince Charles promoting their use.  

The ESS allows us to look at the extent to which alternative treatments are being used and whether people in Britain are more likely to use them than people on the continent.

First of all, we can look at which alternative treatments are the most popular in Britain and what proportion of people are using them. What is clear right away is that the use of alternative medicine is pretty low. No more than 4% of the UK population has tried any of six (selected from 11 alternative treatments asked about on ESS) different non-mainstream medicines in the previous 12 months.

Alternative Medicine Use In Europe (1)

Another way to look at use is to see whether people with particular ailments might be turning to alternative medicine. If we look at the 36% of people in the UK who have neck or back pain, and their use of chiropractics and osteopathy (both alternative treatments that aim to help with back pain) we see that their use is still very low at around 5% for chiropratics and 6% for osteopathy.

It seems fair to say then that alternative medicine is not widely used in the UK. Especially when we know from ESS that a quarter (26%) of people in the UK have discussed their health with a GP in the previous 12 months.

Is this the case across Europe or are people in other countries more open to alternative medicine?

It becomes immediately clear (well perhaps not immediately, it takes a while to look through all the countries) that we Brits are one of the lower users of alternative medicines. Some practices like hypnotherapy and spiritual healing are very low across Europe (people aren't getting that feeling). While others, like herbal treatment, homeopathy and osteopathy are fairly mainstream in some countries. Around one in five people in Lithuania and Estonia had used herbal treatment for their health in the past 12 months compared to one in twenty in Britain. People in France are especially keen on osteopathy and homeopathy. If we look at back and neck pain in France as we did in the UK we find that 27% of people with back and neck pain had used osteopathy. In Denmark around one in ten had tried chiropratics and acupuncture, by contrast, in Poland alternative medicines are virtually non-existent.  

This survey doesn’t tell us exactly why alternative medicine is more popular in many other European countries relative to the UK. It might come down to public spending (only a very small number of alternative medicines are available on the NHS). Or perhaps the Brits and their counterparts in Ireland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland are simply more sceptical.

What is clear is that a reliance on conventional medicine alone is not the norm everywhere in Europe.

The European Social Survey has been carried out across a number of European countries every two years since 2001. More information about the survey is available on the ESS website:

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