Public Perceptions of Herbal Medicines

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a programme of research to investigate the British public's view on herbal medicines.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a programme of research to investigate the British public's view on herbal medicines. The research sought opinion on safety issues arising from usage, the regulation of herbal products and how the public obtains information about herbal medicines. The research involved both discussion groups and a quantitative survey.

The MHRA is the government agency responsible for ensuring that medicines (including herbal medicines) and medical devices work, and are acceptably safe. Historically, in the UK, most herbal medicines have been unlicensed. In 2005 the MHRA launched the new Traditional Herbal Registration Scheme (THR) which means herbal medicines now have to be made to assured standards of safety, quality and patient information. In light of these regulatory changes, the MHRA commissioned this research to help them understand the British public's perception and usage of herbal medicines.

Key findings from our research:

The discussion groups showed that there was not, on the whole, a wide understanding of what herbal medicines are (or are not) especially among non-users. The strongest spontaneous associations made for herbal medicines were `safe', `natural', `non-addictive' and `pure' and herbal medicines are perceived to work more gently and slowly than conventional medicines.

There was a general tendency to believe that herbal medicines are (on the whole) safe and that they are more beneficial than harmful. Few participants commented that they were concerned about taking herbal medicines at the same time as conventional ones, and some users spoke of the greater convenience of being able to use both types. In the discussion groups, herbal medicines users were much more likely than non-users to believe that herbal medicines are regulated, and also more inclined to believe they are safe to take. All groups were in agreement that it is important that herbal medicines are regulated.

The qualitative stage also revealed that people were not generally very discerning about who they would approach for advice on herbal medicines - anyone with an interest in the subject - be they friends, family or sales assistants - were generally trusted to give good advice. However doctors, followed by pharmacists are the most commonly trusted sources of information on herbal medicines. The finding for doctors echoes previous long-standing findings on trust in doctors from Ipsos MORI's 25 year tracker.[1] The finding for pharmacists being a trusted group is consistent with Ipsos MORI's previous work for MHRA [2].

Download the quantitative survey topline results 

Key quantitative survey findings are:

  • 35% of British adults have used a herbal medicine, and 26% of adults have used a herbal medicine in the past two years. Usage of herbal medicines is higher among women and among those from higher social groups AB, compared with men and those in lower social groups D and E.
  • 89% of adults who have used herbal medicines in the last two years feel that most herbal medicines are safe to take.
  • 58% of adults who have used herbal medicines in the past two years agree with the statement that `herbal medicines are safe because they are natural'.
  • 67% of adults who have used herbal medicines in the last two years agree that it is necessary to tell your GP if you are taking herbal medicine, while 22% of this group feel that telling your GP is not necessary.
  • 29% of adults believe herbal medicines are currently regulated in the UK whereas 31% believe they are not and 30% don't know.
  • 77% of adults agree it is important that herbal medicines are regulated, with this figure rising to 87% among regular users (defined as those who have used a herbal medicine within the last 2 years).

Doctors have been used as a source of information about the risks or benefits of herbal medicines by just under 1 in 5 (17%) of British adults. Relatively informal sources of information about herbal medicines are also widely used including family (15%) and friends, colleagues and workmates (13%), as are pharmacists (9%). Sources that are most likely to be trusted for accurate information about the risks and benefits of herbal medicines are doctors (41%) and pharmacists (23%).

Download the full report  

[1] Ipsos MORI/Royal College of Physicians `Trust in Doctors', and previously for the BMA, Cancer Research Campaign and the Sunday Times (1983-2007). 

[2] Ipsos MORI/MHRA 2006. Risk and Benefits of Herbal Medicines

Technical note

This programme of research involved both qualitative and quantitative research among GB adults aged 15+. The details of each stage of the research project are as follows:  

General Public Qualitative Research: four discussion groups were conducted between 8 and 10 July 2008 at two locations; one in the North (Stockport) and one in the South (Croydon) of England. Two groups were conducted in each location, one with users, and one with non-users of herbal medicines.

General Public Quantitative Research: Questions were placed on the Ipsos MORI Omnibus. A nationally representative quota sample of 2,305 adults (aged 15 and over) was interviewed in 197 sampling points throughout Great Britain.  Interviews were carried out face-to-face in respondents' homes.  Fieldwork was conducted between 5 and 11 September 2008. Data have been weighted to match the known profile of the Great Britain adult population.

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