Saturday, August 1, 2009

Americans Spend US$34 Billion A Year For Alternative Treatment

(USATODAY) -- While Americans may complain about the high cost of health care, they're still willing to shell out roughly $34 billion a year out-of-pocket on alternative therapies that aren't covered by insurance, a new study shows.

That's a growth of more than 25% in the past decade, says an in-person survey of 23,000 Americans from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Alternative therapies, which range from herbs to yoga classes, now account for 11% of the total amount that Americans spend out-of-pocket on all health care.

These unconventional approaches are popular with people of all ages: 38% of adults and 12% of children have used them in the past year, the study says.

But Americans don't always use these treatments under a doctor's guidance.

The bulk of these expenses - an average of $122 a person in 2007 - go to "self care," or treatments such as homeopathic medications and fish oil capsules that people buy without a health practitioner's advice, the study says.

But that doesn't mean that these patient reject conventional medical treatment, says Linda Lee, director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center in Baltimore, who wasn't involved in the new survey.

Many people combine conventional and "complementary" approaches, Lee says. For example, cancer patients may undergo chemotherapy at a hospital, but also use acupuncture for chronic pain, she says. And while natural approaches to health care may sound home-spun, they've also become a big business. Lee notes that supplements and alternative therapies have boomed in popularity partly due to savvy marketing.

The study shows that conventional doctors need to learn as much as possible about alternative therapies, Lee says, "not so they can necessarily prescribe or profit from them, but so they understand what it is their patients are hoping to gain and advise patients as to their appropriate use."

The results also show why it's important for researchers to conduct rigorous scientific studies of alternative therapies, says the NIH's Josephine Briggs. Many alternative approaches have never been carefully tested for safety and effectiveness.

That's starting to change.

In recent years, clinical trials presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, for example, have shown that ginseng relieves fatigue in cancer patients, ginger fights chemo-related nausea and flax seeds seem to slow the growth of prostate tumors. Other research presented at the oncology society show that shark cartilage has no effect on fighting lung cancer.

Lee says she's concerned about patients who "self-prescribe" alternative therapies.

Many patients also fail to tell their doctors when they try alternative therapies for fear of ridicule, Lee says. Both practices can put patients at risk, however. Alternative therapies can have dangerous interactions - both with conventional or non-conventional medications - or may pose risks for patients with particular medical conditions.

For example, antioxidant supplements can interfere with the effects of radiation therapy and some forms of chemo, Lee says. High doses of vitamin E, which can thin the blood, could be harmful for people taking other blood-thinning drugs or those about to have surgery.

"An open dialogue with our patients only improves our ability to care for them," Lee says.

No comments: