Alternative Medicine's Rapid Spread? Nonsense

The claim: More than a third of Americans use complementary and alternative therapies. Fact? Not really.

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I don't want to provoke the ire of the pros or the antis (I managed to anger both after doing a story about alternative medicine in January), so please heed: This post is not about the clincial merits of herbals, acupuncture, homeopathy, and other forms of complementary and alternative medicine. It's about the intellectual dishonesty of the surveys that appear every few years purporting to show CAM use. Invariably, very, very large numbers of Americans say they use CAM, and this year's report is no exception. Released earlier this week by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health) and the National Center for Health Statistics, it shows that almost 40 percent of all American adults used some form of CAM in 2007.

Spin, folks. The kind that would do a political consultant proud. It started almost 20 years ago with the first large survey in 1990. That one found 34 percent of U.S. adults used alternative medicine (as it was then called). "Used" was defined so generously, however, that it's hard to understand how almost every person surveyed didn't qualify. You were a user if one time in the previous year you used one of the 16 listed therapies, which included such marginal entries as "self-help group," "commercial diet," and "lifestyle diet." The 1997 survey was the same except more so; usage was up to 42 percent.

In 2002, the hype really kicked in. The first figure cited in the report showed that adult CAM users had jumped to 62 percent. But read a little further and you see why—"prayer for health reasons" had been added. When that was removed, CAM usage dropped to 36 percent, a decline from 1997. And that was even though six more types of CAM therapies had been tacked onto the 1997 list.

Now we're up to the report released earlier this week. Prayer was gone, but four more therapies were added, bringing the total number of categories to 25. Yet the percentage of users was about 38 percent, or what it was in 2002. This year's hype is kids—almost 12 percent of children used CAM in 2007, we are told. Let's look. Hmm, a large number of those kids did "deep breathing exercises." Another big chunk had seen a chiropractor or osteopath. And the largest number of CAM children were taking (or had taken even once, remember) some kind of natural product, including fish oil.

That brings me to the final criticism, that the number of people using therapies that a reasonable person would consider CAM, such as Far Eastern medicine, homeopathy, and energy healing, is tiny. The percentage of ayurvedic medicine users is so low, 0.1 percent or less, that it is statistically invalid. Homeopathy: 1.8 percent. Energy healing: 0.5 percent. Naturopathy: 0.3 percent. I can go on, but you should read the report and judge for yourself. My point is that by and large, we are not a nation that buys into CAM. No amount of statistical twisting will change that. And that's what the message should be—-not an artificial conclusion that tens of millions of people are into CAM.