Americans spend $48 bn on alternative medicine

The Economic Times/January 6, 2004

Washington -- Americans spend $48 billion a year on alternative health therapies, including homeopathy, ayurveda, acupuncture, massage therapy and herbal medicines, reports here say.

The government does not regulate most of it, and the medical establishment in the US scorns nearly all of it. Yet alternative medicine is gaining such popularity that some swear it works miracles, according to the reports.

There have been several anecdotal success stories also from time to time to support alternative medicine but very little scientific evidence that most forms of alternative medicine actually work.

For instance a 39-year-old woman, Alexandra Vanschie, was told to give up on bearing a child because her hormone level was high and the fertility doctor at Cornell University simply told her not to waste money or time on fertility treatments.

She, however, sought help from a Chinese acupuncture practitioner. After some sessions of acupuncture and drinking a concoction of Chinese herbal medicines, her hormone level went down and soon she was able to become a mother.

Vancshie blamed the increasingly impersonal nature of America's traditional healthcare system for the success of alternative medicine.

It is now estimated that at least 30 percent of Americans are turning to some form of alternative medicine to deal with their health problems, giving rise to a lot of concern among medical professionals.

"Most alternative medicine has not been demonstrated to be safe and effective, otherwise we wouldn't call it alternative medicine," said Marcia Angell, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has started taking a serious look at alternative therapies.

It recently concluded that the popular mood-altering herb, St. John's Wort, does absolutely nothing for people with moderate to severe depression.

The NIH has also undertaken a study on acupuncture. So far, researchers believe the treatment is effective at relieving nausea and some forms of dental pain, but that's it.

Angell said people are now pretty fed up with the healthcare system and how they see doctors as too busy to care. She says experts should be concentrating on fixing the bureaucratic mess that the healthcare system has become in the United States rather than researching the efficacy of alternative medicines.

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