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Cancer Patients Likelier to Use Alternative Medicine

Study finds they spend $500 a year on nontraditional treatments

TUESDAY, Feb. 24, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Cancer patients are twice as likely to turn to acupuncture and herbal therapy as people suffering from other diseases are, claims a new study of alternative medicine use.

In fact, alternative medicine accounted for an average of $500 worth of therapy a year among cancer patients in Washington state, which requires insurers to pay for nontraditional treatments.

"A substantial number of people in our region are using naturopathic medicine," says study co-author Dr. William Lafferty, an associate professor of public health at the University of Washington. "This may deserve some additional investigation to see exactly what people are getting from those forms of treatment that they aren't getting elsewhere."

While patients and conventional doctors appear to accept alternative medicine more than ever before, they aren't approved by all insurance companies, making it difficult for researchers to study them. In Washington state, however, a 1995 law requires insurers to cover visits to licensed alternative medicine providers, such as massage therapists, acupuncturists, and naturopathic doctors, Lafferty says. Chiropractors were covered under previous laws.

In the new study, Lafferty and colleagues analyzed the medical claims of 357,709 Washington patients. The findings appear in the April 1 issue of Cancer.

The researchers found cancer patients were twice as likely to turn to naturopathy -- herbal medicine -- and acupuncture. Patients treated with chemotherapy, those with blood or bone cancer, and those with spreading cancer were most likely to turn to naturopaths and acupuncturists, as were women as a whole.

The sicker patients may have been trying "to get help with the toxicity of cancer itself as well as from conventional treatments," Lafferty says.

On average, alternative medicine accounted for 2 percent -- or $500 -- of the average $25,000 annual medical costs per cancer patient. Cancer patients were less likely than other patients to go to chiropractors and about as likely to turn to massage therapy.

Lafferty says the fact that 12 percent of female chemotherapy patients saw a naturopathic physician highlights the importance of full communication between health providers.

"If you're going to get naturopathic care, you should tell your [conventional] care providers that you're doing that," he says. "The same would be true for other forms of care like chiropractic and acupuncture. The more you share with all your health-care providers, the better service and outcome you're going to get."

Some insurance companies try to guarantee that communication takes place. At the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan in the Mid-Atlantic states, for example, conventional physicians work directly with alternative therapists, says Dr. Lydia S. Segal, service chief for integrative medicine.

Among other things, the alternative practitioners recommend meditation, guided imagery, acupuncture, acupressure, and massage, she says. Also, "we judiciously, cautiously review the diets [of cancer patients] and recommend supplements and herbs on a case-by-case basis," she says. "But we do not recommend using alternatives in place of traditional cancer therapy."

More information

To learn more about alternative medicine, try the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. For more on cancer treatments, visit the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: William Lafferty, M.D., associate professor, public health, University of Washington, Seattle; Lydia S. Segal, M.D., M.P.H., service chief, Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, Mid-Atlantic region, Falls Church, Va.; Feb. 23, 2004, Cancer online
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