Why Do We Spend $34 Billion in Alternative Medicine?

A national study shows how much America spends on alternative care, but not why.

ByABC News
July 30, 2009, 6:23 PM

July 31, 2009— -- Chances are that one out of every three people you see in the grocery store, on the street or at work have tried alternative medicine, and they're spending quite a bit for it.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Thursday that Americans spent $34 billion on complementary and alternative medicine in 2007. The study queried more than 70,000 people across the country about 36 various forms of alternative treatments.

But researchers say they still don't know exactly why people are turning to these therapies.

"Since this was a point of time survey, we weren't necessarily asking people about why or how they made their decision," said Richard Nahin, an author of the study released by the NIH and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

The $34 billion spent on complementary and alternative medicine pales in comparison to the $2.2 trillion spent on health care annually, but alternative therapies accounted for up to 10 percent of out-of-pocket health costs.

Yet, at the same time as Americans are embracing alternative medicine, the American Medical Association's (AMA) policy on the matter far from endorses the treatments.

"There is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies," the AMA policy states. "Much of the information currently known about these therapies makes it clear that many have not been shown to be efficacious. Well-designed, stringently controlled research should be done to evaluate the efficacy of alternative therapies."

Without an explanation for exactly why an estimated 38 percent of the population in the United States has expanded their health spending beyond "Western medicine" doctors, NCCAM is simply trying to analyze where the money goes so the center may propose research to test whether it is safe or effective.

Anecdotally, the reasons why people choose alternative therapies range from the relatively cheap cost, the affinity for plant products and a mistrust of the medical establishment.

But an emergency room physician in Mesa, Ariz., who has recently turned to naturopathic care for his family, believes much of it has to do with chronic illness.

"At least my world in the allopathic medicine [a practice sometimes called Western medicine], we do much better with acute care than we do with chronic care," said Dr. Thomas Kupka. "I think for Americans as a whole, more and more of our health care is shifting into the chronic illnesses."

Kupka doesn't see alternative therapies as a replacement to Western medicine for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cancer. However, he did turn to a naturopathic doctor when oncologists said they had done all they could do for his cancer-stricken father.