Science and Health: Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Once people wore garlic around their necks to ward off disease. Today, most Americans would scoff at the idea of wearing a necklace of garlic cloves to enhance their wellbeing. However, you might find a number of Americans willing to ingest capsules of pulverized garlic or other herbal supplements in the name of health.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes a range of practices outside of conventional medicine such as herbs, homeopathy, massage, yoga, and acupuncture, holds increasing appeal for Americans. In fact, according to one estimate, 42% of Americans have used alternative therapies. A Harvard Medical School survey found that young adults (those born between 1965 and 1979) are the most likely to use alternative treatments, whereas people born before 1945 are the least likely to use these therapies. Nonetheless, in all age groups, the use of unconventional healthcare practices has steadily increased since the 1950s, and the trend is likely to continue. CAM has become a big business as Americans dip into their wallets to pay for alternative treatments. A 1997 American Medical Association study estimated that the public spent $21.2 billion for alternative medicine therapies in that year, more than half of which were “out-ofpocket” expenditures, meaning they were not covered by health insurance.

Indeed, Americans made more out-of-pocket expenditures for alternative services than they did for out-of-pocket payments for hospital stays in 1997. In addition, the number of total visits to alternative medicine providers (about 629 million) exceeded the tally of visits to primary care physicians (386 million) in that year.

However, the public has not abandoned conventional medicine for alternative healthcare. Most Americans seek out alternative therapies as a complement to their conventional healthcare whereas only a small percentage of Americans rely primarily on alternative care. Why have so many patients turned to alternative therapies? Frustrated by the time constraints of managed care and alienated by conventional medicine’s focus on technology, some feel that a holistic approach to healthcare better reflects their beliefs and values. Others seek therapies that will relieve symptoms associated with chronic disease, symptoms that mainstream medicine cannot treat.

Some alternative therapies have crossed the line into mainstream medicine as scientific investigation has confirmed their safety and efficacy. For example, today physicians may prescribe acupuncture for pain management or to control the nausea associated with chemotherapy.

Most U.S. medical schools teach courses in alternative therapies and many health insurance companies offer some alternative medicine benefits. Yet, despite their gaining acceptance, the majority of alternative therapies have not been researched in controlled studies. New research efforts aim at testing alternative methods and providing the public with information about which are safe and effective and which are a waste of money, or possibly dangerous. 

So what about those who swear by the health benefits of the “smelly rose,” garlicObservational studies that track disease incidence in different populations suggest that garlic use in the diet may act as a cancer-fighting agent, particularly for prostate and stomach cancer. However, these findings have not been confirmed in clinical studies. And yes, reported side effects include garlic odor.