There’s endless talk about the $2.8 trillion dollars Americans spend each year on health care. Believe it or not, that’s not all we spend on care. Millions of Americans, about a third of all adults, spend billions on alternative treatments or “complementary medicine.” What kind of care are we buying, what are we spending and what are the risks and benefits?
A June 2016 National Health Statistics Reports paper finds that 59 million people spent over $30 billion dollars out of pocket on complementary medicine in 2012. Complementary medicine comes in many flavors, including chelation therapy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, biofeedback, chiropractic manipulation, hypnosis, energy healing therapy, meditation, yoga and massage therapy. Supplements are another form of complementary medicine, with fish oil, which has no proven benefits, the most often used product.
Complementary medicine only represents about 1.1 percent of total health care spending. But, it constitutes a healthy portion of our out-of-pocket costs (9.2 percent) relative to what we spend for conventional physician treatments and prescription drugs.
We spent $12.8 billion out of pocket on natural product supplements, about one fourth (24 percent) of what we spend on prescription drugs. And, there’s no compelling evidence these products provide benefits. Moreover, herbal supplements may not be what you think they are.
We spent $14.7 billion out of pocket on complementary practitioners, almost 30 percent of what we spend out of pocket on traditional physicians.The average out-of-pocket expense per person for visiting a complementary practitioner was $433. That’s more than the average out-of-pocket expense for purchases of natural product supplements, $368, or for self-care, $257. Of note, adults spent about as much as children on natural product supplements and self-care but far more on visits to complementary practitioners.
If you have a chronic condition and are using complementary alternative medicines, be sure to let your doctor know. According to a study in the British Journal of Cancer, the use of alternative medicines, particularly herbal remedies and supplements, may cause serious problems. Some, such as St. John’s Wort, garlic and cod liver oil, can have adverse interactions with conventional treatments.
If you want an alternative health care treatment, check with your insurer to see what kinds of treatments are covered. Ask about which practitioners or products you can use, whether pre-authorization is required, whether there is a limit to the number of treatments you can get, as well as your out-of-pocket costs.
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