Insurance coverage for alternative therapies

24710045.thbAlternative medical practices, such as acupuncture and dietary supplements, have often been relegated to the fringe of established medicine. But some senators are pushing forward an amendment that could get alternative therapies covered by insurance.

Eugenia Chan, MD, MPH, from the Division of Developmental Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, discusses what parents, patients and physicians should know about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

“The majority of people use alternative therapies in conjunction with another form of conventional medicine,” says Chan. “In my clinical practice, I’ve found it rare that someone uses CAM without traditional treatments.” Children with chronic conditions are more likely to use CAM, as well as children whose chronic conditions are typically treated with powerful medications or who don’t have an effective treatment. “Children with autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and various types of cancer tend to fall into that category,” she says.

CAM is becoming more integrated into medical institutions like Children’s. For example acupuncture is often used as part of pain management. Also, some nutritionists are starting to give more advice on special diets.

However, 66 percent of caregivers don’t tell clinicians about their child’s involvement with CAM. A big reason for this, Chan thinks, is that it’s not something physicians are trained to ask about. Also, physicians may have a bias against alternative therapies. For their part, parents might not realize it’s important for a physician to know about things like dietary supplements (which cause interactions with medication) so they don’t volunteer the information.

Chan is cautious about this proposed legislation, and thinks it needs to be considered carefully, as it could open the door for rampant growth in health care costs. “One major contributor to rising health care costs is waste of resources, whether through correcting otherwise preventable medical errors or the indiscriminate use of questionably effective treatments,” she says.  “Not all CAM therapies have been shown to benefit patients. For such legislation to affect its intended purpose of increasing patients’ choice of treatment options, the details of what and who are covered, when and why will be crucial.”

For more information about CAM, check out the Integrative Therapies Team at Children’s Hospital Boston.