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Who Uses Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

By

Updated August 11, 2006


A landmark study on the use of complementary and alternative medicine appeared in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was led by David Eisenberg, MD, now the director of Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Harvard University.

The researchers conducted telephone interviews with 1539 adults across the United States and asked them about 16 commonly used therapies. The study showed that an astounding one in three (34%) of all adult Americans had used a complementary / alternative therapy in the past year. Some other findings:
  • A third of the people who had used complementary and alternative medicine saw practitioners, with an average of 19 visits in the preceding year.

  • The highest use of complementary and alternative medicine was reported by people between 25 to 49 years of age who had relatively more education and higher incomes.

  • The majority used unconventional therapy for chronic, as opposed to life-threatening, medical conditions.

  • Among those who used unconventional therapy for serious medical conditions, the vast majority (83 percent) also sought treatment for the same condition from a medical doctor.

  • 72 percent of the respondents who used unconventional therapy did not inform their medical doctor that they had done so.
A follow-up study conducted in 2002 surveyed 31,044 people as a supplement to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey and found:
  • Among complementary and alternative medicine users, 41% used two or more therapies during the prior year.

  • Factors associated with highest rates of CAM use were ages 40-64, female gender, non-black/non-Hispanic race, and annual income of $65,000 or higher.

  • Overall use for the 15 therapies in 2002 was 35%, similar to the 36.5% that was reported in 1997.

    Over one in three respondents used complementary and alternative medicine in the past year, representing about 72 million US adults.
What about children? A study used the 1996 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a nationally representative survey of the US population. The survey asks parents if their children used complementary and alternative care practitioners within the previous year. The study found:
  • Pediatric complementary and alternative medicine use was 1.8% of the US population.

  • The average age among users under 18 was 10.3 years. 76.8% were white, 54% were female, 32% lived in the west, and 66% lived in a metropolitan area.

Sources

Eisenberg DM et al. "Unconventional medicine in the United States. Prevalence, costs, and patterns of use". New England Journal of Medicine. 328.4 (1993):246-52.

Davis MP, Darden PM. "Use of complementary and alternative medicine by children in the United States". Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 157.4 (2003):393-6.

Tindle HA et al. "Trends in use of complementary and alternative medicine by US adults: 1997-2002". Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 11.1 (2005):42-9.

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