Alternative medicine – is it the way of the future?

alternative medicine

Alternative medicine can no longer be regarded simply as the frivolous pursuit of new-agers and mystics that it once was.  In ever-increasing numbers Americans of all types are turning to alternative treatments, which many of them see as more effective, less invasive and more economical than traditional, western medicine.  In some cases, alternative therapies are the only medical help they pursue; in others, alternative medical regimens are used in tandem with mainstream practices.  Together these two approaches have come to be referred to as CAM therapies (for Complementary and Alternative Medicine).  According to the CDC, between 30% and 40% of U.S. adults use CAM health therapies in any given year.  This number has been steadily on the rise for the past two decades and there is every indication that it will continue to increase as these non-traditional medicine becomes more accepted by the public and is given legitimacy through state licensing authorities.

As the use of CAM therapies grows, so too will the pressure for employers and their insurers to cover more and more of the costs.  Right now, much of the expense for these approaches is borne by the individual, with out-of-pocket payments for office visits and natural health products reaching an estimated $30.2 billion annually.  This accounts for 9.2 percent of out-of-pocket health expenditures annually, but only 1.1 percent of total national health care outlays.  These ratios are bound to change as more and more insurers agree to cover at least some of these costs and as employers come to understand the benefits of allowing their employees to seek alternative therapies.

One area where this approach has proven most useful is in the area of pain management.  This is especially important to employers, since pain is often associated with work-related injuries and is a common cause of lost-time and direct medical compensation expenditures.

But pain and its causes are still something of a mystery even to mainstream practitioners.  The tools they have at hand to deal with it can be expensive and may have only limited success.  Moreover, traditional pain treatments often involve invasive and costly surgery supplemented by strong and potentially addictive drug regimens.   Many of the CAM therapies available, including acupuncture, bio-feedback, massage and heat therapies and chiropractic care have proven in many cases to be just as beneficial, to have far fewer deleterious side effects, and to be far more cost-effective.

The decision to provide coverage for CAM therapies will eventually come down to issues of both cost and employee retention.  Right now insurance coverage for them is spotty at best, based on whatever combination of employer inclination and insurer latitude happens to apply to each situation, and even where allowed they often require lots of red tape to access.  As more and more workers, especially millennials, seek out these new therapies, though, the more appeal there will be for businesses and their insurers to add them to their standard coverage.  We can expect the law to evolve on this subject as well.  The Affordable Care Act mandates that insurers not discriminate against licensed health care providers, including those who practice alternative medicine, such as naturopaths, massage therapists and acupuncturists.   That does not as of now require coverage, but that may soon change.   To remain attractive to the growing swell of employees who want access to these treatments, the prudent employer will want to be out in front of this issue or risk being wiped out under the coming wave.

Dave Sinclair, CEO The WorkPlace Solution

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About the author

David Sinclair is the CEO of The WorkPlace Solutions and Sinclair Risk & Financial Management.

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