Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alternative medicine could be part of health care reform

If Senator Tom Harkin (Dem-Iowa) has his way, the new health care reform bill will provide coverage for alternative medicine practices, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, naturopathy, and herbal remedies. The measure cosponsored by Harkin would prohibit health insurance companies from discriminating against health care providers who offer alternative medicine therapies.

Alternative medicine methods are popular in the United States. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which Senator Harkin was instrumental in creating, 38 percent of adults use at least one form of alternative medicine. Among children age 17 years and younger, usage is 12 percent.

The most commonly used alternative medicine practices used by adults in the United States include nonvitamin, nonmineral natural supplements (17.7%; most common include fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, Echinacea, flaxseed, ginseng); deep breathing exercises (12.7%), meditation (9.4%), chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation (8.6%), massage (8.3%), and yoga (6.1%). Note that supplements such as individual or multi-vitamin/minerals were not considered alternative medicine.

Many adults turn to alternative medicine for the treatment of painful conditions such as back and neck pain, joint pain or stiffness, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal problems. Other common uses include relief from colds and flu, gastrointestinal complaints, stress, and menstrual problems. Women use alternative medicine methods more than men (42.8% vs 33.5%, respectively).

Senator Harkin notes that alternative treatments are less costly than conventional approaches and can be pursued instead of drugs or medical interventions in some cases, especially the conditions for which many people already use complementary approaches. Alternative treatments have already been embraced by many top medical institutions and medical schools across the country, including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, University of Maryland School of Medicine/Center for Integrative Medicine, and the Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Columbia University. More than 75 percent of medical schools in the United States include coursework in alternative medicine.

The alternative medicine amendment cosponsored by Senator Harkin has been adopted by a Senate committee. It remains to be seen whether any or all of the language in the measure makes it to the health care reform bill.

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