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November 23, 1998

A Review of the Incorporation of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by Mainstream Physicians

Author Affiliations

From the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, Calif (Drs Astin, Pelletier, and Haskell), University of Southern California School of Medicine, Los Angeles (Ms Marie), and Stanford University (Mr Hansen).

Arch Intern Med. 1998;158(21):2303-2310. doi:10.1001/archinte.158.21.2303

Background  Studies suggest that between 30% and 50% of the adult population in industrialized nations use some form of complementary and/or alternative medicine (CAM) to prevent or treat a variety of health-related problems.

Method  A comprehensive literature search identified 25 surveys conducted between 1982 and 1995 that examined the practices and beliefs of conventional physicians with regard to 5 of the more prominent CAM therapies: acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbal medicine, and massage. Six studies were excluded owing to their methodological limitations.

Results  Across surveys, acupuncture had the highest rate of physician referral (43%) among the 5 CAM therapies, followed by chiropractic (40%) and massage (21%). Rates of CAM practice by conventional physicians varied from a low of 9% for homeopathy to a high of 19% for chiropractic and massage therapy. Approximately half of the surveyed physicians believed in the efficacy of acupuncture (51%), chiropractic (53%), and massage (48%), while fewer believed in the value of homeopathy (26%) and herbal approaches (13%).

Conclusions  This review suggests that large numbers of physicians are either referring to or practicing some of the more prominent and well-known forms of CAM and that many physicians believe that these therapies are useful or efficacious. These data vary considerably across surveys, most likely because of regional differences and sampling methods, suggesting the need for more rigorous surveys using national, representative samples. Finally, outcomes studies are needed so that physicians can make decisions about the use of CAM based on scientific evidence of efficacy rather than on regional economics and cultural norms.