Alternative Medicine for Allergies: Popular and Costly

Research indicates that alternative medicine is increasingly being used for treating allergies. This study aimed at investigating why and to what extent they are used. Results showed that almost a quarter of the studied population (26.5 percent) used alternative medicine for allergies, with the most common being homeopathy, blood injections, acupuncture and bioresonance. Most subjects in this study were well educated, young and chose alternative medicine because they believed that there were fewer side effects or were dissatisfied with other treatments they had tried. The authors concluded that alternative medicine is, “used widely for allergies by the general population and is associated with considerable costs. This has implications for the healthcare system and health policy.”

Evidence indicates that many people are turning toward alternative medicines for treating various ailments. Surveys have shown that 20 percent of people in the Netherlands, 49 percent in France, and nearly 64 percent of Germans use alternative medicinal therapy. Germans are said to be one of the largest users of alternative medicine. Use of these medicines also raises out-of-pocket costs for individuals. Americans spend nearly $13.7 billion on alternative medicine. Australia spends $930 million and the United Kingdom spends $1.6 billion annually. No study has explored the nature of alternative medicine use, especially for a common condition like allergies, in Germany. The present study focused on this aspect and attempted to gauge its public health importance.

* This study used subjects recruited from a three county survey (from 1994-1995) in Germany.
* A total of 351 adults who suffered from hay fever, other allergies like eczema and food allergies, and asthma were included. All people involved were interviewed over the telephone between Summer 2000 and Spring 2001.
* Analysis included the prevalence of use, why the therapy were used, types of therapies, costs, who they were suggested by, who provided the therapy, ability to pay, and satisfaction with therapy.

Key findings
* Results showed that 26.5 percent of the population surveyed used alternative medicine for allergies. These users in the study’s sample were younger (average age around 43 years) and better educated than the general population.
* The common motivations were beliefs in lack of side effects (reported by 78.3 percent), desire to attempt other therapies (in 71.7 percent) and dissatisfaction with present therapy (66.3 percent). Those who chose alternative medicine had tried all of the current therapy available (in 94.6 percent) compared to those who were not using alternative therapy (63.6 percent had tried all therapies).
* The most popular choices of alternative therapies were homeopathy (35.3 percent), self blood injections (28.1 percent), acupuncture (16.6 percent) and bioresonance (10 percent). Most of the procedures were advocated (40.2 percent) and administered (60.9 percent) by medical professionals. Insurance companies reimbursed only 52.3 percent of the treatments, of which 37.8 percent were paid in full and 14.5 percent were paid in part.
* Estimating efficacy, those who had never used these medicinal therapies felt they were more useful than those who were using or have used it. Only 28.6 percent felt the therapies were very good while 53.8 percent felt the therapies were only somewhat good.

Next steps/shortcomings
The authors agree that they did not look into the individual efficacy and side effects of the therapies in detail. Also, only four alternative therapies were looked at, leaving out herbals, dietary supplements and other home remedies. They write that the results of efficacy from different methods from this study, as well as previous findings, have been contradictory. Further studies could shed more light on the actual benefits and risks of alternative therapies for allergies.

The researchers have found that alternative medicine is a widely used therapy choice in the population they studied. They also note that those who are younger and more educated than the general population tend to turn toward alternative therapies for allergies. This is a unique finding. It was seen that most of the facilitators and providers of these therapies were medical doctors themselves. Also, the effectiveness of these therapies is dubious, but they are quite well-accepted by the population. The authors conclude by saying, “Alternative medicine for allergies should be recognized as a considerable cost burden for society and the individual patient. Implications for public health should also be discussed in context with the limited evidence of efficacy.”

For More Information:
Alternative Medicine in Allergies – Prevalence, Patterns of Use, and Costs
Publication Journal: Allergy, 2002
By T. Schäfer; A. Riehle; Medical University Lübeck, and the Technical University Munich, Germany

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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