Alternative Medicine Surges

Alex Jack

The use of alternative medicine is rising dramatically as the new century approaches. The number of Americans who use alternative therapies at least once a year increased to 42% in the 1990s, according to a new study by Harvard Medical School researchers published in a special issue this autumn on alternative medicine in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The number of total visits to alternative medicine practitioners rose 47% in the same period to 629 million, thereby exceeding the total visits to all U.S. medical doctors. Expenditures for alternative services increased 45% and were estimated at $21.2 billion a year.

The new study came as Congress established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (formerly the Office of Alternative Medicine ) and more than doubled its annual budget to $50 million.

Compared to the United States, recent surveys have found that 15% of Canadians have seen alternative practitioners in the past year; 10% of people in Denmark; 33% in Finland, and 49% in Australia.

The 16 therapies included in the Harvard study included a lifestyle diet such as macrobiotics or vegetarianism; prayer or spiritual healing; energy healing techniques such as laying on of hands; and relaxation techniques such as meditation or the relaxation response. Visits to massage practitioners and chiropractors constitute nearly half of all visits to alternative therapists.

Use of herbal remedies increased 380% since 1990 and high-dose vitamins 130%. “Use of alternative therapies in 1997 was not confined to any narrow segment of society,” the researchers reported. However, it was more common among women (49%) than men (38%) and less common among African Americans (33%) than other racial groups. People aged 35 to 49 reported higher rates of use (50%) than either older or younger people. Use was higher among those who have some college education (50%) than with no college education (36%) and more common with those with annual incomes above $50,000 (48%).

Noting that alternative therapies are only infrequently included in insurance benefits and that a majority of users do not disclose their use of alternative therapies to their physicians, the researchers concluded that “the current status quo, which can be described as ‘don’t ask and don’t tell,’ needs to be abandoned. Professional strategies for responsible dialog in this area need to be further developed and refined.”

The JAMA issue also published the results of several randomized clinical trails that evaluated the use of alternative medicine therapies for treatment of common clinical conditions. Researchers found that:

  • Moxibustion (stimulating an acupressure point by heat generated from burning mugwort) is helpful for correcting a breech presentation in late pregnancy.
  • A Chinese herbal medicine compound improves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Yoga-based intervention helps relieve some symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome

JAMA also reported that claims against chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists generally occurred less frequently and involved less severe injury than malpractice claims against medical doctors.

In an accompanying editorial, the editors of the journal called for further research, including priority funding for alternative medicine, and increased dialogue between the conventional and complementary communities. “Ultimately, answering fundamental questions about efficacy, safety, appropriate clinical applications, and meaningful outcomes for all medical therapies, including those considered alternative medicine, requires critical and objective assessment using accepted principles of scientific investigation and rigorous standards for evaluation of scientific evidence.”

Reprinted from the Winter 1999 One Peaceful World Journal, © 1999, all rights reserved.

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