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updated 2/1/2011 11:59:24 AM ET 2011-02-01T16:59:24

An increasing number of Americans are using alternative medicine, with the biggest increase occurring amongst whites, a new study shows.

The results showed that between 2002 and 2007, use of complementary and alternative medicine therapies (referred to by researchers as CAM), increased by 18.1 percent among whites, 17.2 percent among Asians, 6.6 percent among blacks and 1 percent among Hispanics.

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Standard treatments are based on scientific evidence from research studies. While claims made by CAM treatment providers about their benefits can sound promising, we do not know how safe many CAM treatments are or how well they work, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The study suggested that Americans seek these alternative therapies, which include massage, acupuncture and chiropractic care, when their access to conventional care has been restricted, the researchers said.

"Over time, we're seeing an escalation of health care cost in the U.S.," said study researcher Dejun Su, director of the South Texas Border Health Disparities Center at the University of Texas-Pan American. "As many people cannot afford health care…people might resort to CAM as an alternative source of care," Su said.

Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness and possible side effects of CAM therapies over the short and long term, Su said. Researchers should also investigate how CAM therapies interact with conventional medicines when taken together. And studies should also consider whether racial differences in use of CAM might contribute to further disparities in health among racial and ethnic minorities, the researchers said.

"If it can be confirmed that certain CAM therapies are effective for a given condition," then CAM use could increase the gap in health status between [non-Hispanic whites] and racial and ethnic minorities, the researchers wrote in the February issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

Su and his colleagues examined data from the 2002 and 2007 National Health Interview Survey. The survey is a nationally representative questionnaire that collects information on health behaviors, and access and utilization of health care.

In 2007, about one-third of whites reported using at least one CAM therapy, while  31.8 percent of Asian Americans, 20 percent of African Americans and 16.9 percent of Hispanics utilized at least one form of the therapy. The researchers did not include prayer as a CAM therapy.

Using CAM therapies was associated with having unmet medical care needs and delayed medical care due to costs, the researchers said.

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The results "suggest that when financial barriers hamper or prevent individuals from accessing conventional care, they are more likely to resort to CAM therapies for health care," the researchers said.

Other explanations for the rise in CAM use may be increased awareness of the therapies and the fact that more states now license the therapies.
The racial differences in use of CAM therapies may be due to a lack of awareness of alternative medicine within minority groups, Su said. Some immigrants might not be aware of these therapies when they first arrive in the United States, Su added.

Pass it on: More Americans are using complementary and alternative medicine therapies. The increase in use may be due to restrictions in access to conventional medical care.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @Rachael_MHND.

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