Americans spent $30.2B on alternative medicine in 2012, government report suggests

Many Americans believe alternative medical approaches work, and they’re not averse to shelling out hundreds of dollars annually for them, government data released Wednesday suggests. The report, compiled by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that in 2012, American adults spent about $30.2 billion out of pocket on complementary health approaches. About $1.9 billion of that spending was for children’s care.

Alternative approaches included in the trends survey included meditation, chiropractic care, herbal supplements and yoga, according to a press release. The spending represents 9.2 percent of all out-of-pocket spending by Americans on health care and 1.1 percent of total health care spending.

"With so many Americans using and spending money on complementary health approaches, it is extremely important for us to provide the public with evidence-based information to help inform decisions," NCCIH director Dr. Josephine P. Briggs said in the release. "This underscores the importance of conducting rigorous research to know whether the products and practices being used are safe and effective."

Research suggests meditation and yoga offer physical and mental benefits, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate several alternative medical approaches, including herbal supplements, multivitamins and popular dieting programs.

According to the release for the new analysis, researchers found that Americans spent $14.7 billion out of pocket on complementary practitioners like chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists— almost 30 percent of what they paid out of pocket to conventional physicians. Americans spent $12.8 billion out of pocket on natural product supplements, which was about one-quarter of what they spent out of pocket on prescription drugs. In 2012, Americans spent $2.7 billion on self-care via approaches like CDs or books.

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The average amount spent on complementary care depended on family income, the report suggested, with wealthier families spending more on the medicine. The average person with a family income of less than $25,000 spent $435 out of pocket in 2012, and the average person with a family income of $100,000 or more spent about $590 out of pocket. For visits to complementary physicians, average spending for those groups was $314 and $518, respectively.

"We did an earlier study on cost data from the 2007 NHIS, which was not directly comparable to this one because of differences in survey design,"  lead study author Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., NCCIH's lead epidemiologist, said in the release. "However, globally, in both years, substantial numbers of Americans spent billions of dollars out of pocket on these approaches, an indication that users believe enough in the value of these approaches to pay for them."