Information Use and Needs of Complementary Medicine Users

Complementary medicines 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.


This study is part of the NPS complementary medicine research program. For more information about the background and other components of this program click here.


The aim of this research was to provide a better understanding of current Australian consumer attitudes to complementary medicines, and their information needs and preferences. The research investigated how and why people use complementary medicines, their attitudes and knowledge regarding complementary medicines, their current information seeking and future preferences for information about complementary medicines

Design / Methods

The research was conducted in two phases: a national cross-sectional telephone survey of 612 randomly selected users of complementary medicines; and in-depth semi-structured interviews with a sample of 24 survey respondents.

Summary of results

  • Those who use complementary medicines think differently about them compared to conventional medicines, particularly compared to prescription medicines. Many consumers saw their complementary medicines use as ‘natural’ and part of a holistic view of health
  • Consumers also believe complementary medicines are ‘safer’ than conventional medicines. While this is generally true, some consumers appear unaware that complementary medicines may have potential harms associated with side effects, exceeding the recommended dose, allergies and interactions with conventional medicines
  • Complementary medicines users reported that their own experience is critical in assessing the safety and effectiveness of these medicines
  • Many consumers reported using complementary medicines to enhance health, support the performance of everyday tasks and enhance their capacity to cope with difficult tasks or stress. Some people also use them to treat or manage a condition or deficiency
  • Only 53.3% of survey respondents reported having mentioned or discussed their use of complementary medicines with a doctor
  • Consumers most commonly reported seeking complementary medicines information from family and friends (55%), the Internet (51%), health food shop workers (38%), pharmacists (37%), magazines (37%), doctors/general practitioners (34%), and package inserts/labels/pamphlets (30%). Almost one third of complementary medicines users also reported seeking information about complementary medicines from one or more complementary therapists
  • Some of these information sources about complementary medicines used are of variable quality, reliability and authority
  • In the future complementary medicines users would prefer to get information about these medicines from doctors (30%), the Internet (25%) and pharmacists (24%).


Download the full report here

Results presented at conferences:

  • Tudball J, Williamson M, Toms M. The Information needs of complementary medicines users on safety and efficacy of CM. 3rd International Congress on Complementary Medicine Research, 29-31 March 2008, Sydney, Australia.
  • Tudball J, Williamson M, Toms M. Complementary medicines and consumer information: what do they need, where do they go and what is the point? National Medicines Symposium, 14-16 May 2008, Canberra, Australia (Poster)
  • Williamson M. What consumers want to know about complementary medicines. 3rd International Congress on Complementary Medicine Research, 29-31 March 2008, Sydney, Australia. (Poster)
  • Williamson M. Herbal and natural remedies are our new first preference. National Medicines Symposium, 14-16 May 2008, Canberra, Australia.


This research found a number of gaps in the quality use of complementary medicines which need to be considered. The research found many consumers:

  • Are not aware of the side effects of some complementary medicines and their potential interaction with conventional medicines - this may put some users at unnecessary risk of harm
  • Are using some complementary medicines for general well-being or to prevent illness despite a lack of evidence for this
  • Do not always discuss the use of complementary medicines with their doctors
  • Are reliant on sources of information about complementary medicines that are of variable quality, reliability and authority.

Related information and links

  • MedlinePlus: Herbs and Supplements. (Link) A free source of information about the effectiveness, usual dosage, and drug interactions of dietary supplements and herbal remedies.
  • NPS information about complementary medicines (Link)
  • About the NPS complementary medicine research program (Link)
  • About NPS complementary medicine research with health professionals (Link)