Context: The terms alternative and complementary medicine suggest 2 contradictory possibilities. Whether individuals use unconventional therapies as a substitute for or as an "add on" to conventional medical treatments is uncertain.
Objective: To determine the association between use of unconventional therapies and conventional medical care in a national sample.
Design, setting, and participants: The 1996 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey was distributed to a probability sample of the noninstitutionalized civilian US population. Of 24676 individuals responding (77.7% response rate), 16068 adults 18 years or older were included in the analysis.
Main outcome measures: Visits to practitioners for unconventional therapies and conventional medical services, including number of inpatient, outpatient, and emergency department visits and use of 8 types of preventive medical services (blood pressure, cholesterol level, physical examination, influenza vaccination, prostate examination, breast examination, mammography, and Papanicolaou test).
Results: During 1996, an estimated 6.5% of the US population had visits for both unconventional therapies and conventional medical care; 1.8% used only unconventional services; 59.5% used only conventional care; and 32.2% used neither. Compared with those with only conventional visits, those who used both types of care had significantly more outpatient physician visits (7.9 vs 5.4; P<.001), and used more of all types of preventive services except mammography. These groups did not differ significantly in inpatient care, prescription drug use, or number of emergency department visits. Individuals in the top quartile of number of physician visits were more than twice as likely as those in the bottom quartile to have used unconventional therapies in the past year (14.5% vs 6.4%; P<.001). The association between unconventional treatments and physician visits remained after adjusting for potential confounders and across different types of unconventional treatment.
Conclusions: In this sample, use of unconventional therapies was substantially lower than has been reported in previous national surveys, but was associated with increased use of physician services. From a health services perspective, practitioner-based unconventional therapies appear to serve more as a complement than an alternative to conventional medicine.