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Americans Increasingly Embracing Alternative Medicine and Natural Food Diets

May 28, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle

Americans Broaden Concepts of Medicine
From Prayer to Massage Therapy, Treatments Expand

by Sabin Russell

Drawing from a long list of "alternative" medical therapies as diverse as
the Atkins diet, acupuncture, homeopathy and prayer, federal health
researchers reported Thursday that nearly two out of three Americans were
using unconventional approaches to mend their bodies or maintain their

When prayer is dropped from the list, the federally funded survey found that
36 percent of Americans over the age of 18 used so-called complementary and
alternative medicine.

"What we see is that a sizable percentage of the public puts their personal
health into their own hands,'' said Edward Sondik, director of the federal
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health
Statistics, which carried out the survey.

A snapshot of American health care choices in 2002, the survey concluded
that 8 percent of the nation's adults visited chiropractors; 5 percent
practiced yoga for health; 1.1 percent had acupuncture; and 1.7 percent
employed homeopathy.

The wildly popular Atkins diet, one of several listed as therapies in the
survey, was tried by only 1.7 percent of those surveyed -- but the study was
conducted in 2002, just as the national craze for high-protein, low-
carbohydrate foods was igniting.

The survey of 31,000 Americans was conducted at a cost of $3 million over a
two-year period and is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, said
study author Richard Nahin of the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

Skeptics of alternative medicine nevertheless questioned the scientific
value of the survey. "I can't imagine why someone would invest so much money
for something that has no significance whatsoever,'' said Dr. Stephen
Barrett, a retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist who runs the Web site
Quackwatch (

A frequent critic of the NIH alternative medicine program, Barrett said it
made no sense to include activities such as prayer under the rubric of
alternative medicine. "Praying for one's own health is not an alternative
medicine,'' he said. "Everyone who prays, prays for their own health."

Therapies such as massage, which are labeled as alternative medicine, are
often used by mainstream medical practices, Barrett noted. Hypnosis and
"progressive relaxation," also on the survey list, are techniques used by
conventional psychotherapists.

Unlike earlier surveys that relied on telephone interviews, the federal
study required that researchers visit the homes of respondents, who were
asked during a 10-minute segment of a larger health survey about their
experiences with a list of 27 different alternative therapies.

The findings are consistent with those of smaller surveys of America's
health care preferences, such as the work of Harvard Medical School
researcher Dr. David Eisenberg, who has reported the prevalence of
complementary and alternative medicine in the United States has risen to 42
percent, from 33 percent in 1990.

The federal survey broadened the previous academic work by including prayer
in the alternative medicine mix. It found 43 percent of Americans had prayed
for their own health during 2002; 24 percent reported that other people had
prayed for them; and nearly 10 percent had been in a group that prayed for

The NIH study was released at a time when the federal government's premier
medical research center is under pressure from religious conservatives
offended by some of its studies of human sexuality. Nahin said that there
had been no pressure from the Bush administration to add prayer to the list
of survey questions.

"The survey instrument was developed prior to when President Bush took
office,'' he said.

Dr. William Stewart, medical director for the Institute for Health and
Healing at California Pacific Medical Center, said there was a growing body
of scientific work suggesting that prayer does have a beneficial healing
effect. "Most people who have a cancer diagnosis now engage in some sort of
social support activity,'' he said. "If we look at prayer as a support
network, it could contribute to the well-being and healing of an

Stewart said he was concerned that surveys such as this one tended to lump
all kinds of alternative medicine practices into one group, without much
rationale for doing so. However, he said the larger picture painted by the
study showed that "30 percent or more Americans say the spiritual aspects of
treatment are important."

"That,'' Stewart concluded, "is a very important and salient consideration
for us physicians.''
CHART (1):

Yoga each day keeps the doctor away
The 10 most commonly used complementary and alternative medicine therapies
in 2002 and the approximate percentage of U.S. adults using each therapy:
Prayer for own health 43%
Prayer by others 24
Natural products* 19
Deep-breathing exercises 12
Group prayer 10
Meditation 8
Chiropractic care 8
Yoga 4
Massage 5
Diet-based therapies** 4
* Such as herbs, other botanicals, and enzymes
** Such as Atkins, Pritikin, Ornish, and Zone diets
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Associated Press

CHART (2):
Alternative medicine
According to a nationwide survey, 36 percent of adults use some form of
complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM.*
Why people use CAM
They believe that it will help when 55%
combined with conventional treatments
Interesting to try 50%
Conventional medical professional recommends 26%
Conventional medicine is too expensive 13%
* When prayer for health reasons is included in the definition of CAM, the
rate of Americans using CAM is 62 percent.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Associated Press Graphic

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle