By Brian Howard
Picture a devotee of alternative health methods—chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, and the suchlike—and you'll likely imagine the hippie type with incense burning and a tape of forest sounds playing in the background.
Think again: Alternative health may one day become a misnomer, as more Americans seek care outside of traditional allopathic methods, i.e., drugs and surgery.
Alternative health principles—prevention, natural remedies and treating the whole body rather than individual parts—have existed throughout the world for centuries, yet have only gained a foothold with mainstream health institutions in America in the last 20 years. There may be no better indicator of the mushrooming prominence of alternative health in this country than the fact that employer insurance plans are becoming increasingly receptive to covering alternative methods of care.
According to the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists, approximately one-fifth of companies offered benefits covering alternative treatments other than chiropractic (which is the most widely accepted form of alternative care, and was covered by 86 percent of employers surveyed). And those numbers were compiled three years ago.
A Wide Swath
The alternative health field is large and multi-faceted, encompassing chiropractic, yoga, homeopathy, herbal remedies, dietary supplements, acupuncture, massage therapy and more.
According LOHAS Journal, the "lifestyles of health and sustainability" market—which includes alternative health, as well as environmental, social justice and sustainable living issues—spends in the neighborhood of $230 billion per year on products in this field.
The Web site for the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) summarizes surveys conducted between 1990 and 2000 to measure the prevalence of what it calls complementary and alternative medicine. All but one of the independently conducted surveys place the alternative health population of the United States somewhere in the 35 percent to 45 percent range.
However, statistics defining the alternative health market are a bit fuzzy, since there's no real consensus on what is and what is not alternative health. Suzan Walter, president of the AHHA, believes that these figures would show more growth if the categories included in the studies were consistent. "For all of these statistics," she says, "you have to ask, 'what were they including?'"