Health and Healing in America: Majorities See Alternative Therapies as Safe and Effective

NEW YORK, N.Y. – For many, the term “healthcare” likely leads to visions of doctors and prescriptions, but for some it can mean so much more. Alternative treatments – also known as non-conventional or naturopathic therapies, which include things like chiropractic care, massage therapy, and herbal remedies – are used in place of or in addition to conventional therapies. Overall, younger people are more willing to embrace these alternative therapies and to use them more widely. In fact, one in four Millennials (25%) are using alternative therapies more than conventional options, compared to just 5% of Matures.

However, regardless of age, Americans are keeping an open mind when it comes to less conventional options. Two in three Americans view alternative therapies as safe (69%) and effective (63%), and half think they are reliable (50%). Even more strikingly, majorities think some alternative treatments, like chiropractic and massage therapy, should be covered by insurance – more than actually have used them. These findings appear to suggest an expanded consciousness on what health and healing mean to Americans – not just prescription medicine and doctors, but also having greater access to techniques that have been used for centuries to make people better.

“Though alternative treatments often predate modern medicine, consumer interest in these treatments today is bolstered by two important consumer trends: finding affordable care in a high deductible world, and seeking natural approaches to pain and disease management,” adds Jennifer Colamonico, Vice President of Nielsen Healthcare. “As these trends are likely to continue for some time, we anticipate more consumers will consider and try alternative treatments as well as other types of self-care to achieve health and wellness goals.”

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,252 U.S. adults surveyed online between December 9 and 14, 2015.

Current use and perceptions

Overall, about seven in ten Americans (71%) have used some kind of alternative therapy before. Over one third state they have used herbal medicines (37%) or chiropractic care (34%). For Matures (those aged 70+), chiropractic care is the predominant type of alternative therapy used, with nearly half having ever used it (45%). Herbal medicines appeal much more to a younger audience, with 40% of those under 50 having used it.

Usage of alternative therapies is higher among those who don’t have insurance – nearly half of uninsured Americans (48%) use alternative therapies as often as or more than conventional treatments.

When it comes to how likely Americans are to use alternative options for various conditions, a majority of all adults (64%) are likely to use these options to treat physical pain, and Millennials and Gen Xers are particularly likely to consider such alternatives for things like addiction (60% and 57%, respectively) and mental health (57% each) as well.

What should be covered by insurance?

Majorities believe chiropractic (67%) and massage therapy (53%) should be covered by insurance. Nearly half say the same of acupuncture (48%), including about six in ten Matures (61%).

For the rest of the alternative therapies presented, less than one third think each should be covered by insurance:

  • Herbs/herbal medicines (30%)
  • Electrotherapy (23%)
  • Hypnotherapy (19%)
  • Reflexology (16%)
  • Meditation (15%)
  • Aromatherapy (13%)
  • Cupping (11%)
  • Reiki (9%)

The politics of alternative health

In this political season, it is interesting to note that Independents are more likely to use alternative therapies as often as conventional therapies (23% vs. 13% Republican), and are specifically more likely than their Republican counterparts to use things like meditation (24% vs. 13% Republicans), massage therapy (34% vs. 26% Republicans) and herbal medicines (41% vs. 33% Republicans).




This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between December 9 and 14, 2015 among 2,252 adults. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.  Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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The Harris Poll® #36, May 10, 2016

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll