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Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the Rise

Study Shows More Americans Are Using CAM; High Cost of Conventional Care Is a Factor

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 1, 2011 -- More Americans are turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), including those who have trouble meeting the cost of conventional care, a study shows.

"The rising cost of health care is outpacing inflation and salaries, and there's a good possibility that that is linked to increasing CAM use," says study researcher Dejun Su, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Texas - Pan American.

The study of CAM trends is published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

CAM, which includes such practices as yoga, massage, herbal medicine, and meditation, has been increasing in popularity for many years. In 1990, a third of all Americans had used some form of CAM. By 2002, the number of people who had tried CAM had nearly doubled. The numbers, Su and his colleague Lifeng Li report, remain on the rise.

Their study compares data from the 2002 and 2007 National Health Interview Surveys, which are conducted annually by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, to track the health care status of Americans and their access to the health care system.

Racial Gap in Cam Use

Overall, there was a 14% increase in the use of CAM over the five-year period. That uptick was expected. What surprised Su was the "expanding gap" in the rate of CAM use between non-Hispanic whites and African-American and Hispanic populations.

Whites were more than twice as likely to see a CAM provider as African-Americans or Hispanics. CAM use by Hispanics increased by only 1% over the five-year period. Asians used CAM practices only slightly less than whites. Among the most popular forms of CAM for all groups were massage and chiropractic care.

More than a third of those who said they used CAM practices in 2007 also reported that they had an unmet medical need or had delayed getting medical care. Su speculates that this is due to the greater affordability of CAM, including provider-based CAM practices, compared to conventional medicine. Among his major concerns is that the increase in CAM use is not being matched by evidence-based understanding of the various treatments and therapies that fall under the CAM umbrella.

"The problem with CAM is that is not well-established in terms of its short- and long-term benefits and risks," Su says.

While the number of CAM users is expected to continue growing, Su is curious how changes to national health care policy will affect its use.

"It will be interesting to monitor new health care reform and how that might affect CAM use," he says. "As more people become insured, will they still use CAM?"

SOURCES: Su, D. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2011; vol 22: pp 295-309.Dejun Su, PhD, University of Texas - Pan American.National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?"

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