The use of alternative medicine--meaning everything from herbal remedies to acupuncture to the laying on of hands--has been rising steadily in the United States and is by no means confined to any particular segment of the population, according to a survey conducted by Harvard researchers.
Epidemiologist Ronald Kessler and colleagues used data from a telephone survey done 3 years ago in which 2049 people older than 18 were asked about their use of 20 alternative therapies* in the previous year. Of the responders, 68% had used some alternative therapy and of those, almost half were long-term devotees. Women, whites, Westerners, the college-educated, and people under 50 are most likely to use alternative therapies. By comparing the data with older studies, the team found an upward trend that was uniform among all groups--all of which "suggests a continuing increased demand for [alternative] therapies that will affect all facets of health care delivery over the next 25 years."
Some therapies stay steady--for example, homeopathy use has hovered around 3% for decades, Kessler says. But the use of herbal remedies has shot up, thanks to a federal law passed in 1994 which exempted them from Food and Drug Administration requirements. Aromatherapy has also taken off, the scientists report in the 21 August Annals of Internal Medicine. The growing popularity of alternative therapies is "part of a larger trend of people taking charge of their own health," says Kessler.
Not everyone puts such a positive spin on it. Wallace Sampson of Stanford University School of Medicine, a prominent debunker of New Age medicine, says the Harvard group is trying to legitimize what is in fact still a "fringe" phenomenon and has "grossly overestimated" the popularity of alternative medicine by including in their definition time-honored practices such as self-help groups, relaxation, and dietary changes.
* The survey asked about these alternative therapies: acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, chiropractic therapy, commercial diet programs, "lifestyle diets" (such as macrobiotic), energy healing, folk remedy, herbal medicine, homeopathy, hypnosis, imagery, massage, megavitamin therapy, naturopathy, osteopathy, relaxation, self-help groups, spiritual healing by others, and yoga.