A recent survey by the American Hospital Association and the nonprofit Samueli Institute found the number of hospitals offering ‘complementary and alternative medical therapies’ such as acupuncture and massage is on the rise. Five years ago, just 27% of the hospitals surveyed offered such treatments; in this most recent survey, that number jumped to 42%. Some say the shift represents a recognition by medical professionals that integrating alternative therapies into hospital care can be more effective than traditional treatment alone. But some take a more cynical view: Hospitals are simply giving patients what they want, and what they’re willing to pay more for, even in the absence of evidence that these treatments work.
Americans spent $33.9 billion on alternative therapies between 2007 and 2009, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Because most insurance plans don’t cover such treatments, that means most of the money came out of patients’ own pockets.
Popular treatments offered at hospital outpatient centers include massage therapy, acupuncture, ‘guided imagery’ (a technique that uses visualization to reduce stress), meditation, relaxation training and biofeedback. Some inpatient offerings include pet therapy, music/art therapy, massage, guided imagery, relaxation training, reiki and therapeutic touch, according to the survey.
But there’s not a ton of research supporting the effectiveness of many alternative therapies. Ian Coulter, a senior health policy analyst at the Rand Corp, told the Washington Post that if hospitals confined themselves to those procedures supported by evidence there wouldn’t be much to offer. And the AHA/Samueli survey found ‘patient satisfaction’ was the primary reason hospitals cited for offering complementary and alternative treatments; less than half said they were using health outcomes to measure their programs’ success.
I’ve known many people who swear that acupuncture or other alternative therapies helped them with a range of conditions that traditional medical care couldn’t. Anecdotally, alternative therapies are miraculous. But anecdotally, you can find support for almost anything (just check out the commenters vehemently defending things such as the blood type diet or the paleo diet here). I worry that the vocal supporters of alternative therapies skew people into thinking these therapies are more effective than they actually are. And while there’s nothing wrong with engaging in acupuncture or guided imagery if you think it works for you (and you can afford it), the fact that more medical professionals are endorsing these treatments seems like it could just further complicate things, giving more people a more positive opinion of these therapies than is warranted (of course, one might say the same thing for many pharmaceuticals).
A recent study of reiki given to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy found the reiki treatments did increase patient’s comfort and well-being. But so did a ‘sham reiki’ treatment. I think this illustrates nicely why discussions of the effectiveness of alternative therapies get confusing. Clearly, increasing chemo patients’ comfort and well-being is a positive outcome. But it’s also pretty clear that if both reiki and a made-up fake reiki type therapy have the same results, you can hardly say reiki ‘works.’ Guardian writer Edzard Ernst believes:
The allegedly caring approach of some enthusiasts of alternative medicine would … rob patients of benefits that they need and deserve. In other words, behind the smokescreen of alternative medicine – or integrated healthcare, to use the currently fashionable term – patients would not profit more, but less.
What do you think: Is this trend toward hospitals offering alternative therapies a positive development or not?