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Alternative Medicine Spending Soars

The amount of money that Americans are shelling out for herbal supplements, meditation, acupuncture and other forms of "alternative" medical care is continuing to skyrocket, according to a new government data out today.

Americans spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on "complementary and alternative" or CAM therapies in 2007, according to the nationally representative survey of nearly 24,000 adults conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

About $22 billion of that was for products, including classes, materials and non-vitamin, non-mineral natural products such as fish oil, glucosamine and Echinacea. Most of that -- $14.8 billion -- was for the supplements, according to the results, which were released by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The rest, about $11.9 billion, was for an estimated 354.2 million visits to acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and other CAM practitioners.

To put the numbers in context, the $14.8 billion is equivalent to about one-third of out-of-pocket spending for regular prescription drugs, and the $11.9 billion is equivalent to about one-quarter of out-of-pocket spending for regular doctors visits.

All together, alternative medical care accounts for about 1.5 percent of the nation's total health care bill of $2.2 trillion and 11.2 percnet of out-of-pocket expenses.

The last time someone calculated how much Americans spent on alternative medicinent was in 1997, when the total was estimated to be about $27 billion.

An estimated 38 percent of adults use some form of CAM to treat a variety of disease and conditions. Officials say the popularity of the therapies make it important for carefully conducted studies to evaluate their effectiveness.

Critics say that despite the increasing popularity of these treatments, very little good research has been done to validate their usefulness and the studies that have been done have largely found them to be ineffective. Some dietary supplement products have been found to be dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, issued a warning earlier this week not to use some dietary supplements sold as body-building products because they might cause liver and kidney problems.

What do you think? Are you a believer and user of alternative medicine? Or a skeptic?

By Rob Stein  |  July 30, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine , Family Health , General Health , Health Policy , Yoga  
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Next: Is That Right? "Eating organic food just makes sense."


Funny, nobody ever gets rushed by ambulance to an "Alternative Medecine" emergency room.

Maybe that's a new niche market waiting to be exploited.

Posted by: DupontJay | July 30, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

While I am skeptical of some alternative treatments…I do take fish oil/vitamin supplements as recommended by every primary care doctor I’ve ever had. (“They won’t hurt you son and could help”). The idea of lumping all non-physician related procedures or therapies into one group (CAM) is ludicrous. For example: Is massage therapy the same as or part of physical therapy? And by saying the scary words “the food and drug administration has cautioned that some dietary supplements may be harmful to someone’s health” is also ridiculous. Every substance may be harmful to your health. People have allergies: peanuts, penicillin, fish, wheat, etc……… Have you ever read the side effects or drug/food interaction section of a prescribed drug brochure? People have been debating the value of alternative treatments for years………My opinion: If it works for you. Use it until some better comes along.

Posted by: tonyholst | July 30, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with the previous comment that all CAM cannot be lumped together. My family physician and an orthopedic surgeon both approve of my having regular chiropratic and massage therapy treatments for lower back pain. The treatments and exercises have greatly relived the pain and strenghtened my back - without drugs or surgery.

Posted by: Cosmo2 | July 30, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I have used techniques other than western medicine has provided for many years now.With outstanding results. Constant reference to the possible damages that can be done with complimentary or alternative approaches, can't compare statistically to the compilcation's of mixing over the counter medication with prescribed medication from this drug culture of ours.

Posted by: robertj1 | July 30, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I hear the same thing as tonyholst does from many doctors about certain supplements: "can't hurt/might help." They say this to me, an adult - I've never heard it from the pediatrician, with good reason: some supplements are dangerous in high doses, and others might give parents a false sense of security, thereby avoiding proper medical care for their kids - not fair to the kids, who are not making the decision.

I'm happy for the adults who are paying their own money for CAM therapies - it's their decision. Being a strong believer in the placebo effect, I think a medicine/treatment that a patient trusts can yield better results than one the patient doesn't trust - especially if neither is 100% effective.

However, I don't want my health care plan (or tax dollars) paying for such therapies, and I don't want to see parents encouraged to use them (especially without a doctor involved) on their children. I do hope that all of that 33.9 billion is being spent on adults. . . .

Posted by: drmary | July 30, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

It's the medicine of choice for the healthiest of peoples and the complementary medicine practitioners quickly recommend "allopathic" treatments when they are needed, especially for emergencies, cardiopulmonary, cancer and when hospitalization is needed. My own first choice for primary care is a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine and this was covered by my insurance when I worked. I had a copay and none of the herbal remedies were covered. The practitioner is not only extremely well-qualified but the experience is entirely more natural, more holistic, more empowering, and focused on maintaining good health rather than warring on symptoms. Same can be said for Ayurvedic medicine, naturopathic medicine, where some insurance plans pay part of treatment but never pay for supplements or herbal remedies. Of course, Medicare pays not one penny for any of it and since I cannot afford a supplemental plan, I am totally on my own. No matter, coz so far I'm pretty healthy for an elder.

Posted by: GaiasChild | July 30, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Every healing modality has its place-- there are some things best done in western medical facilities. For instance, we do emergency care very well, but are really lacking in preventative care.

But reports like this don't mention the stats comparing the dangers of allopathic medicine either-- like 1/2 million people die every year from complications from prescribed meds, or how often the patient leaves a MDs office feeling not heard, listened to, or in any way "healed," and that the single most common cause of staph infections in people in medical facilities is from the doc's neck tie (yuck).

What is now called alternative medicine has been used as traditional medicine for centuries and it's still around, and I have used it with great results for a variety of things over the years. I have worked in hospitals and in alternative health, and both have their place. It makes sense to listen to the wisdom of your own body, regardless of who is telling you do take a pill, a treatment, or the latest "cure."

The old saying remains true here on both sides of the coin-- "what people don't understand, they either fear or bow down and worship." Western medicine worships itself and fears other methods they don't understand and can't make money from, and alt medicine is often guilty of the same judgments.

I am an alt-med provider, according to the definitions laid out by this article, and I see room on both sides of the table for open dialogue to see how we can all work together for the benefit of those seeking help.

Posted by: TLS2 | July 30, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm not an expert in this field - but I do find it worrisome that so many people think its okay to pop pills and apply various ointments, etc, if it is labeled "natural" or "organic." I'm mystified by the negative connotation of the word "chemical," considering even if it is from nature it can still be considered a chemical.
That said, I also think the pharmaceutical industry is often misguided in its business practices and that there is nothing wrong with a careful investigation of a variety of medicines - whether they get the stamp of approval from Pfizer or not. This topic is one of interest on the new health & wellness site: - of which I am a writer.

Posted by: kate1dc | August 5, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

There's a (I think) very factual and balanced article about CAM and Ayurvedic medicine research findings here:

Posted by: kate1dc | August 5, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Here's some facts about prescription drugs, and reasons why we're turning to alternative medicine:

Posted by: Grace10 | August 5, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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