BACKGROUND: Complementary medicine is increasingly popular with patients and with GPs, although it still remains mainly in the private sector. Few data are available from the private sector about patient-consulting patterns and outcome. OBJECTIVES: We aimed to describe detailed consulting patterns, help-seeking behaviour and outcome of care for patients attending a group of private complementary practitioners in a single general practice surgery. METHOD: Prospective data on consulting patterns were collected from all 147 new patients attending complementary practitioners over a 12-month period. For the first 30 weeks of this period, additional information on help-seeking behaviour and outcome, as measured by the SF-36 health survey and Measure Yourself Medical Outcome Profile (MYMOP), was collected by questionnaires from 46 out of the 68 new patients. The same information was collected from a systematic one-in-seven sample of GP patients. RESULTS: Patients seen by complementary practitioners did not vary significantly in sex and age from GP patients, except in the low numbers of children. Almost half the patients had been symptomatic for over a year and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 66% of problems; but there was much variation between the therapies. The average number of visits per patient was three for osteopathy and homeopathy but eight for acupuncture and reflexology. The change in MYMOP scores after four weeks showed a statistically significant improvement in both complementary and GP patients, which was to similar degrees except that the mean change in well-being was significantly greater for complementary patients. CONCLUSION: Prospective data collection in single settings adds valuable information to a little-researched area. This study illustrates how individual each complementary therapy is in its patient characteristics, problem category and length of treatment. The particular improvement in well-being with complementary therapy requires confirmation in other studies.