According to data released this week tracking Americans’ out-of-pocket spending on health care, each year we fork out some $33.9 billion for “complementary and alternative medicine” — everything ranging from acupuncture and massage therapy to yoga and herbal supplements. The nearly $40 billion in spending represents just 1.5% of overall annual health care costs, which hover around a whopping $2.2 trillion, but 11.2% of all out-of-pocket expenditures.
The analysis, compiled by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, breaks down spending into two main categories: self-care costs and practitioner visits. Each year, Americans spend $22 billion treating themselves by taking classes, buying self-help relaxation guides and herbal supplements, for example, with $14.8 billion of that going toward over-the-counter “natural products” such as Echinacea and fish oil. In some 300 million annual visits to chiropractors, massage therapists and other non-physician caregivers, we spend $11.9 billion, about a quarter of out-of-pocket spending for traditional doctor’s visits. While overall alternative care appointments run an average of $50 each, for certain treatments — acupuncturists or hypnotists, for example — each visit can cost $75 or more.
It isn’t just yogis and herbalists ponying up for ginseng and meditation: according to the study 38% of adults use some type of alternative or complementary care to ease their ailments. Additionally, the data, collected in 2007, shows marked changes in spending from a decade earlier. In 1997 Americans spent $6.6 billion on self remedies; these days we’re spending more than twice that, suggesting that we’re seeking out do-it-yourself options on a more regular basis. In contrast, it seems Americans may be relying less on alternative care providers. In 1997, we spent at least $15.8 billion getting our spines aligned and muscles massaged; 10 years later, annual spending for these types of treatments dropped by about $4 billion. —By Tiffany Sharples