What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes a wide variety health care practices which may differ from medical care delivered in a hospital or by an MD. CAM is most often provided by licensed health care professionals such as chiropractic physicians (DC), naturopathic physicians (ND), licensed acupuncturists (LAc) and licensed massage therapists or practitioners (LMT/LMP).

Many other CAM therapies are used by patients who self-treat, such as nutritional supplements or yoga. While many of these therapies can be helpful, CHP believes that patients get the safest and most beneficial CAM care from licensed providers who have a proven record of effectiveness, safety, and quality care.

The CHP Group provider network consists of four CAM disciplines: chiropractic, acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, and massage therapy.

How is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) used?
Some patients use CAM instead of regular medical care. For example, a patient might use chiropractic manipulation instead of drugs, surgery, or physical therapy for back pain. But scientific surveys show that most people use CAM along with their conventional medical care. It is important for patients to inform their doctors and therapists about all treatments they are using so that treatment may be coordinated appropriately.

CAM is different in that it isn’t just about treating disease. Complementary and alternative medicine is viewed by many as a way to maintain and improve health. At CHP, we strive to provide you with access to the benefits and providers to make CAM as accessible, affordable, and fulfilling as possible. Importantly, many conventional medical providers are seeing complementary and alternative medicine as an important part of their patient’s overall treatment options. Many believe that CAM doesn’t compete with, but rather enhances, other types of medical treatment.

Who uses CAM?
Scientific surveys done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show that CAM is used by nearly 40% of adults and 12% of children in the United States. The number of visits to licensed CAM providers is greater than the number of visits to primary care doctors.

Most patients use CAM for chronic, non-life threatening conditions. Research shows that people use CAM along with conventional medical care for a wide variety of diseases including chronic pain, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune syndromes, diabetes, hypertension, allergies, rheumatic conditions, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and others. CAM use has been found in many different groups of people including veterans, seniors, women, children, and athletes.

Is CAM effective?
Scientists and medical researchers study CAM treatments using the same methodologies as conventional medical care. CAM has also attracted the interest of the United States government. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) started the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to act as the lead Federal agency for scientific research on CAM. The center has published many reports on complementary and alternative medicine use and effectiveness. Scientific evidence for many CAM treatments is as strong – and sometimes stronger – as that for many commonly used conventional medical treatments.

Is CAM expensive?
Recent estimates based on national survey data show that over $33 billion is spent on CAM therapies in the US. (About $12 billion is spent on visits to CAM practitioners such as chiropractors and acupuncturists.) This is about 1.5% of the total spent on health care and about 11% of dollars spent out-of-pocket. Since little of this CAM treatment is covered by insurance, most of the $33 billion comes directly out consumers’ pocket. The size of these out-of-pocket expenditures indicates that CAM users find a lot of value in their CAM care.

Can using CAM save money?
Not only is CAM effective, it can save money as well. Because most people do not have access to insurance benefits for complementary and alternative medicine, they have to pay out of pocket. While this is a barrier for many people who want to access this kind of care, many others are willing to pay directly for services. This number is growing, and demonstrates that those who use CAM feel that it has been especially effective in improving and maintaining good health. Studies show that use of complementary and alternative medicine can reduce health care costs when it is used instead of, or as part of, more conventional therapies. In some cases, CAM can also be more effective for treatments of problems such as chronic pain and allergies.

When CAM therapies are clinically appropriate, they usually are also less expensive than conventional medical treatments. Natural medicines such as herbs can be a lower cost alternative to drugs. Spinal manipulation from a chiropractor can prevent the high costs of spine surgery. Other CAM therapeutic approaches focus on the body’s ability to heal itself and avoid the costly, high-tech treatments common in hospitals and medical clinics.

This evidence of CAM cost-effectiveness has prompted researchers to study the cost implications of CAM use in greater detail. In a large-scale study of insurance in Washington State, patients who used CAM for costly chronic conditions such as back pain, fibromyalgia, and symptoms of menopause actually cost less than patients who used only conventional medicine.

Where can I learn more?
If you’d like to learn more about complementary and alternative medicine, we’ve provided some links to organizations with especially helpful information below:

nccam.nih.gov - The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health
www.cochrane.org - The Cochrane Collaboration: Independent high-quality evidence for health care decision making