A new venture by the American Hospital Association will help its hospital members tap the lucrative and mostly private-pay market of alternative medicine.
The AHA's partner in this new venture is 504-bed University Hospital and Medical Center, which is part of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and home to the University Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The AHA and University Hospital, an AHA member, will help other hospitals and providers incorporate alternative medicine into their standard treatments.
Jonathan Lord, M.D., the AHA's chief operating officer, said the new partnership is a response to patients' growing demand for alternative therapies.
But Lord also acknowledged that hospitals benefit financially by integrating alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, which patients typically pay for themselves.
"It not only can be a potential source of new revenues," but it also can give hospitals and health systems a competitive edge, Lord said.
While health insurance covers some of these therapies, patients still foot most of the bills.
Various surveys have estimated that 55% to 65% of HMOs offer chiropractic, 30% to 35% offer acupuncture, and 10% to 15% offer massage, said John Weeks, a Seattle-based writer who publishes a monthly newsletter on alternative medicine.
The Nov. 11, 1998, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that four of 10 Americans used alternative therapies in 1997, spending more than $21 billion on visits to alternative practitioners (Nov. 16, 1998, p. 16).
The study said that of the $21 billion, at least $12 billion was spent out of pocket.
A study published in the Aug. 18 issue of JAMA reported that 6.5% of the U.S. population used both conventional and unconventional medical care in 1996.
Alternative therapies are often called complementary medicine when they are used with more-conventional treatments.
The University Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Stony Brook was formed about two years ago, and its staff of eight includes physicians, an acupuncturist, a massage therapist and a research director, said Samuel Benjamin, M.D., director of the center.
About 8.6% of the nation's hospitals already offer complementary services, according to preliminary results of the AHA's annual hospital survey (See chart). The results are based on surveys from 3,643 of the nation's almost 5,000 community hospitals.
The AHA will release the full survey results later this year in its Health Statistics 2000 guide.
The AHA released the data on hospitals' complementary services less than a month before announcing the new partnership.
This was the first time the AHA formally asked hospitals about their complementary services on its annual survey questionnaire.
The partnership between the AHA and University Hospital focuses on education and the sharing of information about alternative medicine.
"We're not selling anything," Lord said.
The information will be shared through AHA publications, the Internet and educational programs. AHA members could incur some out-of-pocket costs for the information, because educational programs and meetings often have registration fees.
The arm of the AHA overseeing the new venture is the Health Forum, a for-profit subsidiary created last year by the merger of the AHA's publishing and data units and San Francisco-based Healthcare Forum.
Lord said the new partnership has no formal business structure and no financial arrangement.
Benjamin said the idea for the venture was a mutual one.
He acknowledged that the increased integration of alternative medicine could face opposition.
Some of the opposition may come from physicians who feel financially threatened by other practitioners or from people "who are concerned that science would be tossed out the window with this stuff coming in, which is an unreasonable concern," Benjamin said.
The Chicago-based American Medical Association had no comment on the AHA's latest venture.
Lord said he doesn't expect opposition from AHA members.
But he added: "I do expect skepticism, particularly from some quarters of the medical community."