Americans spend billions on alternative medicine treatments

June 23, 2016 Providence Health Team

Some 59 million Americans spent about $30.2 billion out of their own pockets for alternative medicine treatments and products in 2012, according to a federal report.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says spending on complementary health care covered:

  • Chiropractic services
  • Acupuncture
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Natural products such as fish oil, glucosamine, probiotics and coenzyme Q10

Combined, the purchases amounted to about 9 percent of all out-of-pocket health care spending in 2012 and about 1.1 percent of overall health care spending, according to the report.

With so many Americans paying for complementary health approaches, “it is extremely important for us to provide the public with evidence-based information to help inform decisions,” said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of NCCIH. She said more research is needed to determine whether all of the complementary treatments, products and practices in question are safe and effective.

Yoga, acupuncture and meditation have been shown to have health benefits and are commonly recommended to help ease various conditions.

The figures on alternative medicine come from an analysis of an extensive survey of health care spending and treatments conducted each year by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. It surveyed about 44,700 people. Included in the survey were about 10,200 children ages 4 to 17 whose parents said their children took natural products or had various treatments.

Overall, the numbers were largely the same as in 2007, when a previous survey was done.

Which treatments Americans bought

The analysis showed Americans spent $30.2 billion this way:

  • They paid $14.7 billion to visit alternative practitioners, about 30 percent of what they spent out of pocket on traditional physicians. Their average annual cost for visits to alternative providers was $433.
  • They spent $12.8 billion on natural product supplements, about 24 percent of what they spent on prescription drugs.
  • They bought about $2.7 billion worth of self-care items, including books and homeopathic medicines. On the average, that amounted to $257 per purchaser.

Spending on alternative treatments was robust even among families making less than $25,000 a year, the survey showed. Families that sought alternative treatments or supplies and whose income fell below $25,000 in 2012 spent an average of $435. People with family incomes of $100,000 or more who paid for alternative treatments spent an average of $590.

Insurers respond to the demand

Increasingly, insurers are recognizing that many members want coverage for chiropractic services, acupuncture, massage therapy and other alternative treatments.

Providence Health Plan’s Balanced plans for small groups, for example, waives deductibles for up to 10 combined chiropractic and acupuncture visits per year. For large groups, Providence Health Plan offers plans that cover chiropractic, acupuncture and massage therapy. Providence Choice Plans also cover complementary health services.

In addition, Providence Health Plan offers discounted yoga, fitness and wellness courses to its members.

You can read the analysis of 2012 complementary health spending here. The full report by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics is here.

Talk to your health care provider about whether alternative treatments would benefit you. You can find a Providence provider here.

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