Basing complementary medicine research on public spending

Despite a rich history of advances, modern medical treatment options sometimes fall short in tackling neuropsychiatric symptoms or even overcoming physical pain for some patients. Those Americans have turned to complementary and integrative medicine (CIM) for relief. Unfortunately, not all CIM practices have significant research supporting long-term effectiveness. The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has a $124.1 million annual budget to evaluate the usefulness and safety of CIM—a tall order. One way to increase the impact of each research dollar is to direct research efforts (and associated funding) based on treatments that draw significant public spending.

CIM is estimated to represent about 11% of U.S. out-of-pocket healthcare expenditure at about $33.9 billion each year. Of that, $11.9 billion was spent on CIM practitioners like acupuncturists, chiropractors, and massage therapists. Research funded by NCCIH stands to save the public billions of dollars by helping them make informed decisions about those CIM treatments demonstrating evidence of positive results.

For instance, earlier this month we explored budding research showing the effectiveness of touch-based medicine ( ) in promoting relaxation. This finding helps justify the public spending in CIM practitioner-based therapies and encourages further research into touch-based healing. Recent studies reveal two other avenues of research: CIM used by parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and CIM used by adults with more than one neuropsychiatric symptom.

The first study showed that CIM use for ASD was prevalent across the United States, with 88% of the parents surveyed using some type of CIM recently or in the past. CIM was associated with families demonstrating similar characteristics in areas like parental education, young children, prescription drug use in the past three months, and some participation in regular or special classroom settings. As a result of these findings, the paper’s authors concluded that “it is critical that providers be prepared to discuss the advantages and potential side effects [of CIM] with families to help them make well-informed health care decisions….”

The second study found that American adults with more than one neuropsychiatric symptom, such as anxiety and excessive sleepiness, had a disproportionately higher demand for CIM than those without symptoms. In the U.S., about 37% of adults experience more than one of these symptoms and spend $14.8 billion out-of-pocket on CIM. These results demonstrate a need for further research showing the safety, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of CIM adopted by those looking to control symptoms currently unaffected by modern treatments.

Ultimately, CIM receives a modest percentage of U.S. research funding, making it essential to maximize the impact of each research dollar. By relegating CIM research to studies focusing on CIM domains drawing significant public spending, agencies like NCCIH and other funding organizations can have an immediate impact on out-of-pocket CIM expenditure and can lead to safer, effective use of complementary medicine.


P. Purohit et al., J. Clin. Psychiatry 76(7): e870 (2015), doi:10.4088/JCP.13m08682.

A. Owen-Smith et al., Res. Autism Spectr. Disord. 1(17): 40 (2015).

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