NIH: $34 Billion Spent on sCAM Last Year

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.

NIH Chart

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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. @Steve:

    Yes, I agree with you, let us instead of spending the money on this stuff, let’s use NASA and send them to the moon . . no wait, Mars . . no wait, the SUN! Just like Superman did with the nukes in Superman 4!

    That was what you were suggesting, right Steve? If not, then it should have been!

  2. 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.

    I can cure anything from a broken leg to the clap with a pultice made from river mud, tree moss, and some bull urine (Mountain Dew will also work).

    Since I have no stupid morals, perhaps I should undercut all of Big CAMa, and make a fortune.

  3. Other things you can get with $34 billion dollars:
    – 10,000 MRI machines
    – 340,000 “Luke arms”
    – 150,000 artificial hearts
    – 500,000 years of Harvard Medical School
    – 100,000,000 wheelchairs
    – 130,000,000 physical exams
    – 2,000,000,000 H1N1 shots
    – 500,000,000,000 tongue depressors

  4. And every time I ask someone I know why they waste their time and money on alternative medicine I get the same answer, “It can’t hurt.” I guess they don’t count their wallet which is getting hurt pretty good.

  5. I have to wonder how they arrived at these numbers.

    My mother is a hypochondriac raised as a Christian Scientist. In other words, woo central. She has spent insane amounts of money to burn wax in her ears, get balloons up her nose, various forms of energy and touch healing, etc etc. She currently has no retirement account but points to her “quality of life” instead.

    But if someone were to try to get her to admit how much she spent on alternative treatments, those numbers would be much lower than her actual costs. She probably wouldn’t include the massive variety of supplements, the constant samplings of store-bought homeopathy, the treatments that were performed by an actual doctor, or the witch doctoring that she received in place of actual psychiatry.

    Yes, most of those things are mentioned in the report but at this point, I don’t think she knows. For example, if she goes into Whole Foods and picks out a new bottle of drops every time, it is such a habit that she would file it mentally under “groceries.” The past-life therapist wouldn’t be counted as an alternative treatment but rather as a seeking for truth.

    Here’s the sick part, she graduated from MIT. She’s not stupid and she loves science. We had a Newton Tree, with ornaments shaped like apples when I was growing up.

  6. Ha, I like the Official Friend title.

    This report doesn’t even include vitamins and minerals, which is a $5 billion market. Of course these are no-brainer treatments for conditions related to dietary deficiencies (e.g. scurvy, rickets), but megadosing is extreeeemly popular and the benefits often pretty questionable.

    You, Rebecca, may have too much conscience to tap into this industry, but the drug companies don’t – they’re starting to jump on the dietary supplement bandwagon bc it’s so so lucrative and the time-t0-market is like nil compared to getting a drug FDA approved. And just because you’re a drug company doesn’t mean you can make unapproved (i.e. bogus) claims:

  7. Well, there’s no accounting for how people spend their own money – people spend it on scam products all the time, and unfortunately, it’s something that isn’t going away.

    What REALLY bothers me is when tax payer money is used to support this crap. NIH is the government agency that supports health research and awards grants. NIH has plenty of legitimate sub-institutes: The National Institute of Mental Health, the National Eye Institute, the National Cancer Institute etc. But there is also the “National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine”

    The NCCAM is a government organization that burns money on studying crap like homeopathy and other scam stuff. They’ve done quite a few studies, burned hundreds of millions of dollars and no, still no evidence. This was not created by NIH or by any competent medical research group – NCCAM exists because a politician (Tom Harken) decided we needed it and stuck it in a bill

  8. Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong are all included as woo? I’ve taken all three and they were all really fun and relaxing exercise classes. Ok, yes, one of the yoga classes I took was very woo woo, but even though I didn’t believe that part (though all the chanting was fun!), it still gave me a workout (nothing like the power yoga class though – ouch!).

    I understand that often a lot of strange claims go with these classes. But there are also a lot of people out there complaining that these things are being turned into “just exercise” in the US. I think they’re all less woo than they used to be. My tai chi class was at the Y, taught by a 70 year old Italian American guy who just thought of it as exercise. It was a heck of a lot of fun.

  9. @ShannonCC: I have to agree with you there. There’s no doubt that yoga is a good workout. It always makes me sweat! The woo woo comes in when the practitioner starts in with the chakras and other cosmic energies.

    Similarly with massages, I think there’s little question about their actual therapeutic effects. It’s only when the masseuses start talking about energy points and releasing toxins or when they start calling themselves “Chiropractors” that the woo starts pouring in.

  10. @ShannonCC: Second that. I took Tai Chi because it’s an effective fighting art. (And believe me, I have the sparring bruises to prove it.) I don’t think that qualifies me as spending any money on woo, though I’m aware that there were a few in that class who were ‘centering their chi’, or something like that. But that was usually just shrugged off by the teacher. It was a martial arts class.

  11. It really bothers me that I may be part of the problem. Before I became much more of a rational thinker, I was deeply into the Woo. I was a reiki master, energy worker, trance channeler and a crystal healer. I am deeply ashamed that I was so gullible as to believe all that crap and WORSE to convince others that it benefited them.

    Now I’m really worried because I’ve been taking classes at the American College of Health Sciences, working on my Master Herbalist certification. They SEEM to have a scientific approach to the herbs. My manuals have links to studies on PubMed about the efficacy of certain herbs for specific conditions. They also teach about the individual constituents, what they do and how they work on various conditions as well as the contraindications and interactions with common phramaceuticals.

    I would NEVER suggest herbs for major illness that is better treated by pharmaceuticals. That is just irresponsible and could even lead to someone’s death.

    On the other hand, I think many people rely too much on drugs for minor illnesses which is why, and please correct me if I am wrong, we have tougher strains of viruses. Too many people go to the doctor and get antibiotics when they feel sick instead of treating the symptoms at home until their immune systems can fight it off.

    So I’m really conflicted. I thought I could be of help but now I just don’t know.

  12. @JOHNEA13: See Widespread Tamiflu resistance sparks new look at pandemic flu drug stockpile.

    @BoobCast: You probably already know this, but rhe #1 OTC drug in the world (aspirin) is synthesized from an herbal constituent (salicylic acid from willow). Morphine (probably the most powerful analgesic) is directly extracted from the poppy, which also gives rise to the oh-so-popular drugs found in Vicodin and Percocet. Plants have also yielded novel drugs with proven efficacy; such is the case with the anticancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol), derived from the Pacific yew tree.

    The list of conventional drugs with herbal origins goes on and on. There’s no question that herbs contain pharmacologically active constituents – which means that they also carry risks of significant adverse effects and drug interactions. Sometimes the synthetic derivative is more effective and/or better tolerated than its natural form; such is the case with aspirin and its base compound, salicylic acid. Herbs are an integral part of conventional medicine – when used properly. It’s better that you study herbal pharmacotherapy than to use herbs blindly (like many Americans do).

    Interestingly, Tamiflu is synthesized from an herbal constituent (shikimic acid from Chinese star anise).

  13. @BoobCast: The world needs more woo-skeptic herbalists. As already discussed, some alternative medicine has common sense benefits. When it gets mixed in with all the expensive, mystical bullpucky, it takes away from the actual good.

    Perhaps you can be the one who rescues people from the cult of woo.

    The biggest issue I have with herbal treatments is standard doses. When you take an aspirin, you get a precise amount. If you make a tea of willow bark, you get a dose that can fall between one aspirin and many. The amount of curative can vary from one batch to the next. Since many herbal remedies have known side effects, this extra dosing can be problematic.

  14. @Bookitty:

    This is why I prefer suggesting tinctures to teas. The dosage is much more precise as tincture dosage is based on the client’s weight. I also wouldn’t suggest willow tea for a headache. For that, I’d suggest rubbing lavender essential oils on the temples or sniffing peppermint oil. A warm bath with lavender EO is also good since most headaches are tension-based.

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