Some people seem to believe that the field of alternative medicine resembles a quaint little cottage industry where money hardly matters. A new analysis shows how far from the truth this impression is.
In the 2007 US National Health Interview Survey, use of complementary health approaches, reasons for this use, and associated out of pocket (OOP) costs were captured in a nationally representative sample of 5,467 US adults. Ordinary least square regression models that controlled for co-morbid conditions were used to estimate aggregate and per person OOP costs associated with 14 painful health conditions.
The analyses suggest that individuals using complementary approaches spent a total of $14.9 billion OOP on these approaches to manage three painful conditions: arthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia. Around 7.5 billion of that total was spent on consulting practitioners such as chiropractors and acupuncturists. Total OOP expenditures seen in those using complementary approaches for their back pain ($8.7 billion) far outstripped that of any other condition, with the majority of these costs ($4.7 billion) resulting from visits to complementary providers. Annual condition-specific per-person OOP costs varied from a low of $568 for regular headaches, to a high of $895 for fibromyalgia. The total expenditure on complementary medicine was comparable to that on conventional care.
The authors concluded that adults in the United States spent $14.9 billion OOP on complementary health approaches (e.g., acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicines) to manage painful conditions including back pain ($8.7 billion). This back pain estimate is almost 1/3rd of total conventional healthcare expenditures for back pain ($30.4 billion) and 2/3rds higher than conventional OOP expenditures ($5.1 billion).
These are truly eye-watering sums. The obvious question is: IS THIS MONEY WELL-SPENT?
The short answer, I fear, is NO!
The alternative therapies in question are not based on compelling evidence in the management of these painful conditions. Some are clearly not better than placebo, and others are apparently supported by some research but its quality is hardly good enough to rely upon.
This level expenditure is both impressive and worrying. It highlights an enormous waste of resources, alerts us to an urgent need for truly rigorous research, and demonstrates how high the stakes really are.