Complementary Medicines research program

Complementary medicines (CMs) are also known as traditional, natural or alternative medicines and include herbal medicines, vitamin and mineral supplements, other nutritional supplements, traditional medicines such as Ayurvedic medicines and traditional Chinese medicines and homoeopathic medicines.


Many Australians use one or more complementary medicines regularly and spend an estimated $1.31 billion on these medicines each year. Self-prescribed vitamins, herbal medicines and mineral supplements are the most common complementary medicines used.

While the intent of using complementary medicines is to gain positive health effects, there is limited evidence of the effectiveness of many complementary medicines. While most complementary medicines are low risk, some may need to be taken with caution as they contribute to:

  • allergic reactions to, or side effects from, individual complementary medicines
  • interactions with prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, or other herbal products, which can result in both medicines having reduced or enhanced effects
  • the delay in receiving effective supervised treatment for a serious medical condition
In 2003, the Expert Committee on Complementary Medicines in the Health System was commissioned to report on the status of CMs and therapies in Australia. In the report 'Complementary Medicines in the Australian Health System',1 the Expert Committee identified a number of concerns and made a series of recommendations to facilitate safe, appropriate and effective use of CMs. Recommendation 25 in the report recommended that 'the Department of Health and Ageing commission a study to determine the complementary medicines information and skill needs of health care professionals and consumers, options for conveying this information to stakeholders, and the costs and resources necessary to meet these needs.'

NPS conducted this research program primarily to inform its own programs. This research also sought to address the research needs outlined in Recommendation 25 of the ‘Complementary Medicines in the Australian Health System’ report.

A literature review undertaken in 2006 to inform this program of work reported that consumers have different expectations of complementary medicines compared with conventional medicine. The review presents work published between 1997 and February 2006 on information seeking and information needs of consumers and health professionals in Australia and overseas around complementary medicines.

The review found:
  • consumers expressing satisfaction with complementary medicines despite their expectations generally exceeding the health outcomes achieved.
  • many consumers had limited knowledge of the potential risks of complementary medicines. As most complementary medicine use is self-prescribed by consumers, such gaps in knowledge may result in suboptimal use.
  • there is often inadequate communication between consumers and healthcare professionals about complementary medicines.  Healthcare professionals often underestimate use of complementary medicines and are rarely proactive in enquiring about these products.
  • there has been an increasing integration of complementary therapies into mainstream Australian medical and pharmacy practice. However, gaps remain in the knowledge of mainstream health professionals about the benefits and side effects of complementary medicines.
Read the full literature review.

Other preliminary research included findings about complementary medicines use from the NPS annual consumer surveys (2006, 2008) are available.

Program aims

This program of work aims to:

  • Better understand the attitudes, information needs and preferences of consumers around complementary medicines
  • Better understand the attitudes, information needs and preferences of health professionals (GPs and pharmacists) around complementary medicines.
  • Evaluate the quality of complementary medicine information resources 

The results of this work aims to underpin the development of strategies to promote the quality use of complementary medicines.

Program design and components

Study 1: Complementary medicine users research 

Study 1 involved a survey of 612 users of complementary medicines in Australia and in-depth interviews with 24 users.  

Read more about this study or view the full report.

Study 2: Complementary medicines GP and pharmacists research

Study 2 involved a survey of 1,178 general practitioners and 388 pharmacists and a series of twelve focus groups with general practitioners and community pharmacists. 

Read a summary of the study or view the full report.

Study 3: Review of complementary medicines electronic information resources

In study 3 a list of CMs information resources were tested against broad criteria encompassing currency, coverage, transparency and content quality to produce a shortlist of resources.

Read the full summary of this study or view the report and publications.


The NPS Complementary Medicine Expert Research Advisory Group contributed to the direction, methods, interpretation and reporting of the research. Members were Professor Alan Bensoussan (Chair), Dr Michael Bollen, Professor Jon Adams, Professor Joanne Barnes, Professor David Briggs, Mr Michael Johnston, Dr Tony Lewis, Dr Wendy Morrow, Professor Stephen Myers, Dr Marie Pirotta and Ms Juliet Seifert.