February 2, 2017

Vast Majority of Americans Say Benefits of Childhood Vaccines Outweigh Risks

2. Americans’ health care behaviors and use of conventional and alternative medicine

Americans who have seen a health care provider in the past year for treatment of an illness or medical condition hold largely positive views of their experience. Most of those receiving care felt that their description of their symptoms was carefully listened to, that their health care provider really cared about their health and well-being and that they received the information they needed for their treatment or home-based care. Only a minority of this group reports having felt rushed by their health care provider or confused about the instructions they received for at-home care or treatment needs.

At the same time, a majority of Americans say that when they make decisions about treatment for a serious health problem, they do their own research in addition to seeking advice from a doctor or other health care provider. Some of those who report doing their own research say they are aiming simply to learn more about the provider’s recommendations, while other people say they do so to check for other treatment options or to learn about potential side effects of the recommended treatment.

About half of Americans report having tried some form of alternative medicine, such as herbal remedies, acupuncture, chiropractic treatment or energy therapies, at some point during their lifetime. About a fifth of Americans say they have tried alternative medicine instead of conventional medicine; and, roughly three-in-ten adults have tried alternative medicine in conjunction with conventional medical treatment. In addition, about one-in-twelve Americans report that they never use over-the-counter medications when experiencing cold or flu symptoms, while the remainder say they either take such medications right away or wait until their symptoms worsen. People who have used alternative medicine instead of conventional medicine and those who never take over-the counter medications are less likely to have a primary care provider, to have had a flu shot and to have had a preventive care checkup in the past year.

Health care options can vary widely from community to community. A minority of the public says that access to quality health care is a big problem in their local area. People’s views about access to quality health care are linked with community size and type as well as family income.

Most Americans berate themselves for not getting enough exercise. Nearly eight-in-ten Americans say they “should probably be getting more exercise.” A majority of those who say they exercise “a few times a week” believe they should be getting more exercise than they do. By contrast, most of those who exercise daily say they get about as much exercise as they should. Regardless, fewer than one-in-six adults describe their lifestyle as “very healthy”; most see themselves as having a “somewhat” healthy lifestyle.

Roughly half of Americans report that they exercise at least a few times each week, but three-quarters of Americans believe they should be getting more exercise

About half of Americans say they exercise every day (15%) or a few times a week (38%). Some 47% of U.S. adults say they exercise no more than a few times a month.

At the same time, 79% of Americans believe that they should probably be getting more physical exercise; only 20% say they get as much exercise as they should.

While most people who report exercising every day judge themselves to be getting as much exercise as they should (65%), some 35% of this group thinks they, too, should be getting more exercise.

Previous surveys conducted by telephone, including one by Pew Research Center in 2006, also found a majority of Americans said they should be getting more exercise. One factor in these perceptions of self-failings may be the sense that exercise is important for lessening the risk of disease. Two-thirds (66%) of Americans in this new Pew Research Center survey say getting enough exercise is very important for preventing the risk of serious disease, and an additional 29% say it is somewhat important.

Most Americans see themselves as having a “somewhat healthy lifestyle”

Most Americans judge themselves to be living a somewhat (66%) or very (14%) healthy lifestyle. About two-in-ten Americans (19%) describe their lifestyle as not very or not at all healthy.

Non-smokers and those who exercise regularly are more likely to see themselves as following a very or somewhat healthy lifestyle, as do adults ages 50 and older.

Some 36% of Americans who exercise daily say that they live a very healthy lifestyle, compared with just 6% of those who exercise a few times a month or less often.

Similarly, 18% of people who have never been cigarette smokers describe themselves as having a very healthy lifestyle, compared with 6% of current smokers.

One-quarter (25%) of adults ages 65 and older consider themselves to have a very healthy lifestyle; just 9% of 18- to 29-year-olds say the same.

Men and women are about equally likely to see themselves as following a healthy lifestyle.

People following healthy lifestyles tend to have social networks contacts who do the same

One-in-five Americans say that most of their closest family and friends live a healthy lifestyle. An additional 56% say some of them do, while 20% say only a few do and just 4% say none of their friends or relatives live a healthy lifestyle.

Fully 46% of people who see themselves as following a very healthy lifestyle say that most of their close family and friends do the same. In contrast, just 5% of people who describe their own lifestyle as not very or not at all healthy say that most of their close family and friends follow a very healthy lifestyle.

Public views about access to quality health care vary across community types

Health care options can vary widely from community to community. People’s views about access to quality health care are linked with community size and type as well as family income. Overall, some 27% of Americans say that access to quality health care is a big problem in their community, 42% call it a small problem and three-in-ten (30%) say this is not a problem in their area.

Americans living in rural (33%) and urban (30%) communities are more inclined than those living in suburban communities (23%) to say access to quality health care is a big problem where they live.

Just 14% of those with a family income of $100,000 or more say access to quality health care is a big problem, while a much larger share (43%) say this is not a problem in their local community. In contrast, 35% of people with a household income of less than $30,000 say access to quality health care is a big problem in their community. Just one-quarter (25%) of those with lower incomes say access to quality health care is not a problem.

Women are slightly more likely than men to see access to quality health care as a big problem where they live (33% compared with 21% among men).

By comparison, more Americans consider the availability of jobs to be a big problem in their local community (44%) than say the same about access to quality health care (27%). A similar share of Americans (26%) say the quality of K-12 education in public schools is a big problem where they live.

Most people report positive experiences when receiving health care treatment

Roughly six-in-ten Americans (63%) report that they have gone to a health care provider for an illness or medical condition in the past year, while 36% have not.

The vast majority of people who have seen a health care provider for an illness or medical condition in the past year report positive experiences. Fully 87% of those who have been to a health care provider within the past year felt their concerns or descriptions of symptoms were carefully listened to, 84% say they felt their health care provider “really cared about (their) health and well-being” and 80% say they got all the information they needed for further treatment and at-home care. Only 23% of this group report feeling rushed by the health care provider and only 15% felt confused about the instructions they received for further treatment or at-home care.

Some 23% of those with a high school diploma or less schooling who saw a health care provider in the past year say they felt confused about follow-up instructions for care; that figure is only slightly higher than the 15% of those with a postgraduate degree who say the same. People across demographic groups, including gender, age, race and ethnicity, as well as those with a regular health care provider and those without, give broadly positive assessments of their health care treatment visits.

People’s use of conventional and alternative medicine tie with their use of preventive health care

The Pew Research Center survey included a few questions about people’s habits and practices in using conventional and alternative medicine; these behaviors correlate with their use of preventive care and, as shown in the next chapter, their views about the risks and benefits of childhood vaccines. One measure comes from people’s use of alternative medicine, particularly if used instead of “traditional,” Western-based conventional medicine. Another measure comes from people’s practices regarding their use of over-the-counter medications for cold or flu symptoms.

A fifth of Americans say they have tried alternative treatments in lieu of conventional medicine

Alternative medicine is a broad category including herbal dietary supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic, energy therapies and other therapies that are not part of standard conventional (here also called, traditional) Western-based medical care. Many of these alternative therapies have uncertain healing effects although some techniques have been shown to help relieve pain and nausea and are used as complementary treatments in addition to conventional, standard medical care.

About one-third (32%) of U.S. adults say they have heard a lot about alternative medicine, and 54% say they have heard a little, while 13% say they have heard nothing at all about alternative medicine.

About half of the general public reports that they have tried alternative medicine either instead of (20%) or in conjunction with (29%) conventional medical treatments. Half of U.S. adults say they have never used alternative medicine.

Older adults, ages 65 and older, are a bit less likely than younger age groups to have used alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment (10% have done so compared with 22% each of those ages 18-49 and 50-64).

There are no significant differences by gender or education in having tried alternative medicine in lieu of conventional health care.7

The National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people with chronic conditions use more complementary and alternative medical treatments.8 The Pew Research Center survey also finds people who report having a chronic medical condition are more likely to have used alternative medicine in addition to traditional medicine (33% have done so compared with 24% of those who do not have a chronic condition or disease).

About one-in-twelve Americans report that they never use over-the-counter medications

Overall, most Americans report that they use over-the-counter medications either right away (41%) when experiencing cold or flu symptoms or that they do so after symptoms worsen (49%). Some 8% of Americans say they never take over-the-counter medications.

No single demographic or educational group stands out as never taking over-the-counter medications for cold and flu symptoms. However, those who say this are more likely than other Americans to have tried alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment.

Roughly one-third (34%) of people who say they never take over-the-counter medications say they have tried alternative medicine instead of conventional medical care. By comparison, 18% of those who say they take over-the-counter medications right away have used alternative medicine instead of a conventional treatment.

Preventive health care behaviors correlate with people’s use of conventional and alternative medicine

Preventive health care aims to promote health and well-being through regular checkups, immunizations and screening tests. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (76%) say they have a primary care provider. Some 69% of Americans say that they have gone to a health care provider for a physical examination in the past year, and 40% say they have had a flu shot in the past year.

Americans’ habits toward using conventional medicine are associated with their preventive health care behaviors. For example, among the minority of Americans who say they never take over-the-counter medications for cold and flu symptoms, fewer have a primary care provider (65% compared with 80% of those who take over-the-counter medications right away), had a physical exam in the past year (61% vs. 74% of those who take over-the-counter medications right away) or had a flu shot in the past year (20% vs. 45% of those who take over-the-counter medications right away).

Those who have used alternative medicine instead of conventional treatment are also slightly less likely to have a primary care provider or to have had a preventive care checkup or flu shot in the past year.

About three-in-ten Americans say they supplement a health care provider’s advice in order to check for other options or to learn about potential side effects of recommended treatments

When it comes to making decisions about treatment for a serious health problem, three-in-ten Americans (30%) say they just ask a doctor for advice. Roughly two-thirds of the public (68%) says they ask a health care provider for advice and also do their own research, either to check for other treatments (21% of U.S. adults), to understand potential side effects for a recommended treatment (9%) or simply to learn more about the recommended treatment (36%).

Americans who report never taking over-the-counter medications for cold and flu symptoms are more likely to say that they do their own research to check for other treatment options than do people who take such medications at the first sign of symptoms. Some 36% of those who never take over-the-counter medications say they do their own research in order to check for other treatments, compared with 17% of those who take over-the-counter medications right away.

People who have tried alternative medicine are a bit more likely than other Americans to say they supplement a doctor’s advice with their own research, especially to check for other treatment options.

  1. Other research has found that women and more highly educated adults are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicine. There are wide differences in definitions and question wording in surveys about alternative medicine, however, that could account for such differences. See Harris, P.E., Cooper, K.L., Relton, C. and Thomas, K.J. 2012. Prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use by the general population: A systematic review and update. International Journal of Clinical Practice, vol. 66 (10): 924-939.
  2. Falci, L., Shi, Z., Greenlee, H. 2016. Multiple chronic conditions and use of complementary and alternative medicine among US adults: Results from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. Preventing Chronic Disease, vol. 13: 150501.