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Consumers Spend More Than $30 Billion on Alternative Medicine

Posted: August 11, 2009

Americans spend more than a 10th of their out-of-pocket health care dollars on alternative medicine, according to the first national estimate of such spending in more than a decade.

Chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists and herbal remedies are commanding significant consumer dollars as people seek high-touch care in a high-tech society, the report released by the government shows. Altogether, consumers spent an estimated $34 billion on those and other alternative remedies in 2007, the report found.

"We are talking about a very wide range of health practices that range from promising and sensible to potentially harmful," said  Josephine Briggs, MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the federal agency that leads research in this field. More research into which therapies work is critically needed, because the spending on them is "substantial," she said.

The data, gathered in 2007 mostly before the recession was evident, doesn't clearly reflect whether the economy played a role in spending on these therapies. But Briggs noted there has been "speculation that as the number of uninsured grows, there may be increased utilization of some of these approaches, which tend to be relatively inexpensive." Nearly half of those who use alternative medicine say they cannot afford conventional care, according to government data published in a separate report.

Some consumer advocates say people are wasting money on some products that rigorous studies have shown don't work. Sidney Wolfe, MD, who leads Public Citizen's health research, has long criticized the government for what he considers lax regulation of prescription drugs and mainstream medicine. Yet, he also sees problems with the widespread use of dietary supplements. "People think they are cleared," by the Food and Drug Administration, he said, when in fact they do not need proof of safety or effectiveness to go on the market. "Mainly, they're ineffective," he said.