By way of Wendy Chao, Official Friend of Skepchick, comes news that a new study by the National Institutes of Health has found that Americans spent $33.9 billion on complementary and alternative medicine last year. This is such a massive number that my brain, unable to comprehend it, keeps insisting I type “million” instead of “billion.”
Compared to the amount of money spent on medicine that is, you know, real, it’s actually not that much. The NIH says it amounts to about 1.5% of total spent, though it’s about 11.2% of the total amount spent out-of-pocket.
The bulk of the money ($22 billion) was blown on dubious products like fish oil, glucosamine and echinacea, a plant that many people consume in order to relieve or prevent cold symptoms despite the fact that research to date has shown that it doesn’t help in the least. Surely, though, someone’s college roommate’s mother took it once when she had the flu and it saved her life, so you might as well plunk down a few billion dollars to try it out, amiright?
Of that $22 billion, an impressive $2.9 billion was spent on homeopathy, a category of quackery that at this point we can completely write off as 100% bullshit. (If you don’t know why, please see this post.)
The rest of the cash was spent on services like chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists, all of whom could be performing simple, therapeutic procedures, but all of whom could also be claiming to release subluxations, cure cancer, and massage away kidney disease. It’s tough to tell from this broad overview, though the report does say that the highest amount per person was spent on practitioners of naturopathy and chelation therapy, the latter of which is some seriously scary quackery that is often used to abuse autistic children.
There is good news, though. A similar study was conducted in 1997, and though the two studies differ in methodology, the NIH suggests that a comparison can be made. If correct, this comparison shows a decrease in the amount spent on and total number of visits to CAM practitioners (though unfortunately there is a corresponding rise in the amount spent on CAM self-care). Energy healers saw one of the biggest drops in customers, though acupuncturists actually saw an increase, possibly due to some misleading reporting on its efficacy (including by this study’s sponsors, the NIH’s NCCAM).
The entire study is available over on the NCCAM web site, so check that out if you’re interested in more of the details. I’ll be sitting here in the corner, trying to come to terms with the fact that there is a $34 billion market out there that my own stupid morals will never let me tap.