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 Consumer Literature on Alternative Medicine: - Addressing Consumer Confusion 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Chinese Medicine News Desk by . View all columns in series
Consumer futurist Faith Popcorn in her 1991 book, The Popcorn Report, describes a trend of "Staying Alive," which predicts that Americans will continue in the direction of seeking self-healing and self-care. According to Popcorn, "Medical knowledge and alternatives will cross cultures in a way we have never seen before...[moving] to the mainstream of medicine, ... [being] incorporated into traditional treatments, or stand[ing] on their own as preferred courses of action." (Popcorn, 1991)

Over the past 25 years, The American Journal of Chinese Medicine has witnessed and participated in the dramatic rise in the use of alternative medicine in the U.S. The Journal looks forward to helping this movement attain the next level, providing the communication needed to increase understanding and acceptance among medical practitioners and researchers, and to instigate increased education of consumers. It is such communication that will enable the true integration of alternative medicine into the daily lives of health practitioners, and, ultimately, consumers.

In order for the alternative medicine community to realize the "future" of alternative medicine, as Faith Popcorn and others so optimistically foresee it, we must start by taking stock of this industry, where it has been, where it is today, and where it is going. Borrowing a technique used from the consumer products industry, we might start by creating a kind of industry map from a consumer perspective. To do this, we must first understand:

  • The continued growth potential for alternative medicine in the U.S.
  • How consumers perceive alternative medicine today
  • Factors influencing these perceptions
  • Means of addressing their major concerns in adapting alternative medicine
  • Let us examine each factor in turn.
  • The Continued Growth Potential for Alternative Medicine in the U.S.

    Advocates of alternative medicine can celebrate the fact that 34% of the U.S. population uses some form of alternative medicine, and that interest and demand continue to climb (Eisssenberg et al., 1993)

    In the U.S., this $50 billion dollar alternative medicine industry continues to strive for further growth (The New York Times, 1996): Over 50% of the top 250 pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting research to develop new active materials from plants (Cosmetics-and-Toiletries, 1994) Retailers such as Thrifty PayLess have worked to capitalize on trends in alternative medicine by devoting more space to herbal remedies and homeopathic products (Chain-Drug-Review, 1994) From 1992-1993, the number of HMOs offering chiropractic coverage rose to almost 50% from about 25%, according to the Group Health Association of America. (Caraton, 1995) Over 50% of conventional physicians use or refer patients for complementary and alternative medical treatments in the U.S. (Office of Alternative Medicine, 1996) Despite these benchmarks, the potential for growth is still great. Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, 65-80% of the world's population relies on traditional medicine as its primary form of medicine (Complementary Alternative Medicine at the NIH, 1997). The U.S. still has a long way to go in realizing the value associated with the increased use of alternative medicine.

    How Consumers Perceive Alternative Medicine Today
    While interest is strong, consumers have not responded fully to the vast array of products and services currently on the market. This puzzle was aptly captured in a feature article in Time Magazine on the topic in May, 1997: "No matter how many times consumers have been shown this shopping list of cures before...only a comparatively small percentage of them have expressed any interest." (Kluger, 1997).

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     About The Author
    Laurel Skurko Kao is Managing Director of Linc International, founded in 1992. Ms. Kao has an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University...moreLaurel Kao
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