Health Law and Ethics
November 11, 1998

Medical Malpractice Implications of Alternative Medicine

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health (Drs Studdert and Brennan); the Center for Alternative Medicine Research, Department of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School (Drs Eisenberg and Kaptchuk); Boston University School of Law (Ms Miller); and Harvard Law School (Mr Curto), Boston, Mass.


Health Law and Ethics section editors: Lawrence O. Gostin, JD, the Georgetown/Johns Hopkins University Program on Law and Public Health, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Md; Helene M. Cole, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA.

JAMA. 1998;280(18):1610-1615. doi:10.1001/jama.280.18.1610

Although use of alternative therapies in the United States is widespread and growing, little is known about the malpractice experience of practitioners who deliver these therapies or about the legal principles that govern the relationship between conventional and alternative medicine. Using data from malpractice insurers, we analyzed the claims experience of chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists for 1990 through 1996. We found that claims against these practitioners occurred less frequently and typically involved injury that was less severe than claims against physicians during the same period. Physicians who may be concerned about their own exposure to liability for referral of patients for alternative treatments can draw some comfort from these findings. However, liability for referral is possible in certain situations and should be taken seriously. Therefore, we review relevant legal principles and case law to understand how malpractice law is likely to develop in this area. We conclude by suggesting some questions for physicians to ask themselves before referring their patients to alternative medicine practitioners.