By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, July 30 (HealthDay News) -- Americans spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on complementary and alternative medicine in 2007 alone, U.S. health officials report.
CAM includes medical practices and products, such as herbal supplements, meditation, chiropractic and acupuncture, which are not part of conventional medicine.
"The bottom line is that Americans spend a lot of money on CAM products, classes or materials or practitioner visits," Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, said during a morning teleconference Thursday.
The main reasons Americans turn to alternative medicine is for pain relief and to contribute to their health and well-being, Briggs added.
Briggs noted the survey was done to find out which areas of CAM warrant research by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The survey was done without regard as to whether any of these alternative or complementary approaches actually work, she said.
In the United States, CAM accounts for 1.5 percent of all health-care costs in the United States, but 11.2 percent of all out-of-pocket costs. Total health-care spending in the United States totals $2.2 trillion and out-of-pocket costs for conventional medicine comprise $286.6 billion, according to the report.
In all, about 38 percent of adults use some type of CAM.
"Two-thirds of the money spent on CAM is spent on self-care therapies," report author Richard L. Nahin, acting director of the Division of Extramural Research at U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, said during the teleconference.
Self-care therapies are things you can do on your own without having to see a health-care provider, Nahin explained.
Out of the $33.9 billion spent out-of-pocket on CAM, about $22 billion went toward self-care costs. Most of the money ($14.8 billion) went to buy non-vitamin, non-mineral natural products such as fish oil, glucosamine and echinacea, according to the report. That's equivalent to about one-third of total out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs, the researchers noted.
In addition, $11.9 billion went to some 354.2 million visits to CAM practitioners such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and homeopaths, which is about one-quarter of total out-of-pocket spending on physician visits.
Of the 20 conditions for which people use CAM, nine are associated with chronic pain, Nahin said.
"These data clearly show us that Americans use CAM to treat these conditions, often which are very hard to treat with regular medical approaches," he said.
The report used data from U.S. 2007 National Health Interview Survey.
The report was prepared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics.
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine and director of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., said "this report lends support to the growing field of integrative medicine, which strives to blend conventional and complementary practices thoughtfully and in light of the available evidence."
"The data reported here indicate that CAM remains very popular and its use constitutes a major portion of total health-care utilization in the U.S.," Katz said. "This is important, as it suggests that many patients have needs or preferences not met by the prevailing practices of conventional medicine alone."
The data also suggest that patients are increasingly informed about the evidence base for alternative medicine practices, and are shifting toward those that are better-substantiated and that's a positive trend, Katz said.
"The persistent popularity of CAM despite the associated out-of-pocket costs attest to its important potential to address health-care needs otherwise unmet," Katz said. "Responsible use of science and responsiveness to the needs and preferences of patients need not be mutually exclusive."
"But there is the risk of using poorly regulated and unsubstantiated potions and practices more likely to harm than help," he added.