Yale Study Finds Patients Use Alternative Medicine To Complement, not Substitute for, Mainstream Medical Care

In the largest survey ever to measure patient visits for alternative therapies, a Yale study has found that contrary to popular perception, patients generally report using alternative therapies to augment, rather than replace their medical care.

Published in the August 18 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the study, “Association Between Use of Unconventional Therapies and Conventional Medical Services,” used a sample size four times larger than any previous survey of unconventional therapies in the United States. According to the study’s principal investigator, Benjamin G. Druss, M.D., M.P.H., Assistant Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Yale University, the results indicate that only 1.8 percent of the population made visits for alternative therapies in the absence of visits for conventional medical care.

“These results show that alternative or unconventional medicine isn’t really an alternative at all, but a complement to traditional medical practices,” says Dr. Druss. “Use of unconventional therapies was consistently associated with an increased likelihood and number of physician visits.”

As interest has soared in unconventional therapies such as chiropractic, herbal, acupuncture and hypnosis, there is an increasing need to examine this issue from both a clinical and health policy perspective. Dr. Druss and his colleague, Robert A. Rosenheck, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Clinical Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale University, used the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). Overall, 24,676 individuals responded to the core MEPS survey with a response rate of 77.7 percent.

Respondents were asked about such issues as the number of visits to practitioners for unconventional therapies and conventional medical services–including number of inpatient, outpatient and emergency department visits and use of preventive medical services such as blood pressure, cholesterol level, breast examination, mammography, influenza vaccination and prostate examination.

In this sample, use of unconventional therapies was substantially lower than has been reported in previous national surveys, but was associated with increased use of physician services. During 1996, an estimated 6.5 percent of the U.S. population had visits for both unconventional and conventional medical care; 1.8 percent used only unconventional services; 59.5 percent used only conventional care; and 32.2 percent used neither.

According to Dr. Druss, only 19.7 percent of patients who had both types of visits had told their physicians about their unconventional medical care.

“Physicians need to be aware that it is very likely that their patients are receiving unconventional medical care,” says Dr. Druss, whose study was funded by a National Institute of Mental Health Grant. “Our findings reinforce the need for physicians to ask their patients about unconventional medical care so that these treatments are not at odds with conventional treatments.”

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326