Non-Traditional Medicine in America

Summary: More than a third of Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, according to the most comprehensive look yet at non-traditional therapies in the United States. And two-thirds of Americans use "prayer for health reasons."

Comments: We were not much surprised by the overall finding that a great many Americans have turned to complementary and alternative medicine. We were also not surprised by the finding that many Americans pray for health. We knew that American was a nation prone to prayer.

One thing that did surprise us was learning from the survey that 43% of the respondents prayed for their own health whereas prayer by others for the respondent's health was only 24%. Is prayer for health more often for oneself as opposed to the health of others?

We were also interested to see that only 4% of the respondents used diet-based therapies (Atkins, Pritikin, Ornish, and Zone diets). From all that is written about such diets, we would have thought that 10 times that number of people were into these diets. Do 10 people talk about these diets for everyone on them?

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors, MedicineNet.com

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More Than One-Third of U.S. Adults Use Complementary and Alternative Medicine, According to New Government Survey

According to a new nationwide government survey, 36 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 years and over use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM is defined as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. When prayer specifically for health reasons is included in the definition of CAM, the number of U.S. adults using some form of CAM in the past year rises to 62 percent.

"These new findings confirm the extent to which Americans have turned to CAM approaches with the hope that they would help treat and prevent disease and enhance quality of life," said Stephen E. Straus, M.D., Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). "The data not only assists us in understanding who is using CAM, what is being used, and why, but also in studying relationships between CAM use and other health characteristics, such chronic health conditions, insurance coverage, and health behaviors."

The survey, administered to over 31,000 representative U.S. adults, was conducted as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) 2002 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Developed by NCCAM and the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the survey included questions on 27 types of CAM therapies commonly used in the United States. These included 10 types of provider-based therapies, such as acupuncture and chiropractic, and 17 other therapies that do not require a provider, such as natural products (herbs or botanical products), special diets, and megavitamin therapy.

Although there have been many surveys of CAM use to date, the various surveys included fewer choices of CAM therapies. In addition, they often surveyed smaller population samples primarily relying on telephone or mail surveys versus in-person interviews used for this survey. Thus, the results from the CAM portion of the NHIS provide the most comprehensive and reliable data to date describing CAM use by the U.S. adult population.

Overall, the survey revealed that CAM use was greater among a variety of population groups, including women; people with higher education; those who had been hospitalized within the past year; and former smokers, compared to current smokers or those who had never smoked. In addition, this was the first survey to yield substantial information on CAM use by minorities. For example, it found that African American adults were more likely than white or Asian adults to use CAM when megavitamin therapy and prayer were included in the definition of CAM.

"We're continuously expanding the health information we collect in this country, including information on the actions people take in dealing with their own health situations," said NCHS Director Edward J. Sondik, Ph.D. "Over the years we've concentrated on traditional medical treatment, but this new collection of CAM data taps into another dimension entirely. What we see is that a sizable percentage of the public puts their personal health into their own hands."