“Nearly 40 percent of adults and 12 percent of children in the United States use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to an annual, nationwide government survey published Wednesday.”
“CAM use among adults was greater among women than men (42.8 to 33.5 percent), among older people than younger (30-39 years: 39.6 percent, 40-49 years: 40.1 percent, 50-59 years: 44.1 percent), and among people with higher levels of education (55.4 percent).”
I found it odd that the use of alternative medicine increases with higher levels of education. I would have thought that more highly educated people would be less likely to use alternative medicine. Perhaps it’s because alternative medicine isn’t covered by most insurance companies, and a people with more disposable income might be more likely to shell out cash for, say, acupuncture or an herbalist?
A friend’s husband is an acupuncturist. His practice is in a very wealthy neighborhood, and most of his clients are wealthy housewives who come in for weight loss treatments, fertility treatments, or to stop smoking. The rest are mostly older people with back issues, etc. But the majority are in the first group.
I personally don’t believe in acupuncture. But I let her husband treat me for “fun” (and for free) a while back, at his insistence that he could cure the patch of skin psoriasis on my shoulder. I thought it would be interesting when after several visits there was no improvement. And of course, I was right. He was baffled, certain he was going to get results. He told me I had too much Yang and I should not eat spicy foods, only bland foods, and I should try to be less hyper. I found the entire thing to be great fun. His diagnosis was - in a nutshell - that I’m too sassy. They are a sweet couple, I’m still friends with them, and still tease them about their “voodoo medicine.”
Sadly, this study is quite misleading. To get the reported 40%, they included a list of 36 “alternative medical practices” which included diets (such as vegetarian diet, Atkins, Pritikin, Zone, and so on), deep breathing, meditation, massage, and “non vitamin non mineral natural products” which included things like flax and soy. This conveys a false impression of nearly half of Americans using CAM by broadening the definition to near meaninglessness. Only 1.4% reported using acupuncture, 8.6% “chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation,” 1.8% homeopathy, and so on. Only by including the 12.7% who practice “deep breathing,” the 9.4% who meditate, the 8.3% who’ve gotten a massage, and so on did they create the impression that people are turning to CAM in droves. Beleive me, no one is more disturbed by the popularity of CAM than I am, but it’s a whole lot less widespread than the media reports of this study suggest. Heck, I’m a vegetarian, I meditate sometimes, I breathe deeply, and I probably eat flax or soy in my breakfast cereals sometimes, so I guess I’m a CAM patient after all.
As for the education issue, higher education doesn’t imply scientific education or critical thinking. It does, however, mean that one is more likely to research and have opinions on one’s health care, be proactive about health, and have the time and money to seek out and employ questionable practices.
Thanks for the link to the full study, Dr. McKenzie. I know CAM investigation is of special interest to you.
I thought the 40% was extremely high, but didn’t see a link to the full study in the blog post, which was bugging me. I thought it would link back to a science journal or at least a major news outlet, but if it did I didn’t see the link.
It would seem that by their definition, anyone who shops at Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s uses alternative medicine. And the diets being included - well that’s just silly. How many millions of women have tried one diet or another, for the heck of it, hoping to lose 10 pounds? I don’t think that’s alternative medicine. Plus, many people eat a vegetarian diet due to concerns for animal rights, rather than for “medicinal” reasons. To include all vegetarians is misleading.
They include massage as alternative medicine? I just LOVE massage, but have decided to view it as a feel-good spa treatment, not medicine. My husband likes to get me a gift certificate for my birthday. It feels wonderful for the back, and it’s nice to be “pet” for an hour. I feel like a rubber band when I walk out the door. Although I’m turned off by massage therapists who hang crystals and do reikki. I ask for a straightforward “sports therapy” type rubdown. (And if they happen to be in a beautiful spa where I can hang out in the steam bath afterward, and then get my toenails done, well, that makes my birthday all the better! Every gal should be “Queen for a day” once a year!)
I haven’t done a formal survey of my patients but my impression is that among my own patients much of this is true. Women are certainly more receptive to CAM medicine then men. I know I am going to get flack for this, but I think women are more receptive to spiritual, non scientific views of the world in general than men are and CAM appeals to them more for this reason.
Older patients do seem to have a greater interest in CAM for a couple of reasons. First, they have more medical problems and spend more time talking to friends and searching the internet which leads them to lots of dubious web sites full of CAM misinformation. My father is in his 70’s and tells me that a lot of his elderly friends have fully bought into the conspiracy theory that the drug companies are covering up evidence that alternative medicines can cure lots of common diseases. I find the older folks are the most rabid in their beliefs. Question the supplements a 70 year old is taking and you open a real hornets nest. I find younger people are more likely to listen to reason.
I’m a bit surprised about the education thing myself. My practice runs the gamut from blue collar workers to college professors and wall street execs. I can’t say I’ve seen a real pattern but my gut impression is that the lower educated people are using more of the useless CAM remedies for things like the common cold ( Vitamin C, Zycam) because they don’t know any better. The better educated/wealthier crowd seems to buy more of the CAM stuff that’s directed toward preventive medicine (useless vitamins and other supplements, Coenzyme Q10, or Chromium Percholinate to “increase metabolism) because its “fashionable”.
These are of course generalizations with all their faults and pitfalls, and there are plenty of exceptions to the rules. I am just comparing my own experience to what this survey found.
I’ve worked at different practices in different socioeconomic areas, and I am absolutely convinced thhat wealth and education are correlated with interest in CAM. Where I am now is a very affluent clientele, and they all come in with printouts from the internet and lists of supplements and such they’re interested in. We support two part-time chiropractors and a part-time DVM who does mostly TCM and acupuncture, so the demand is great. And when I try to spread a little science-based medicine, the mgt is very wary of offending these folks because they bring in a lot of income. *sigh*
I’ve met a surprising (to me) number of freethinkers who believe in alternative medicine. The skepticism toolkit that takes apart religious belief and religious institutions so well has also been applied to conventional medical practice and its institutions.
CFI has shown great leadership in debunking alternative medicine, but I’m not certain that enough of the troops are marching to that tune.
Several years ago in NYC, on the same day that CFI held a lecture critiquing alternative medicine, another humanist group coincidentally showed a film praising alternative medicine in Cuba.
Yes, CAM seems to appeal to iconoclasts and anti-authoritarian personality types. A lot of libertarians, who are often allies of secularism as well, seem to like the idea of CAM as free market of health care not regulated by the government or controlled by big industries. Sadly, we all seem prone to allow our ideology to overule our reason from time to time, even when part of our ideology is a reverence for the power of reason.
Yes, Novella writes some great stuff at the Science Based Medicine Blog too! I was encourage by Obama’s appt of Dr. Chu to head DOE, and by his pro science comments. He’s a prgmatist, so we can’t expect to get everything we want, but I imagine we’re going to be a lot happier about science policy in the next 4 (hioefully 8) years!
Novella does a great job, and I do like his podcast as well. The #1 place for this sort of information, however, is Quackwatch, by Dr. Stephen Barrett.
Quackwatch is great too, especially coupled with http://whatstheharm.net/ for the person you are trying to convince. I rarely listen to the radio now days, I like to listen to science/medical/skeptic podcasts instead. I wish quackwatch had a podcast—-the only antiquack podcast I found has become defunct.