The Efficacy And Cost-Effectiveness Of Integrative Medicine
updated December 10, 2012
A Review Of The Medical And Corporate Literature
Americans pay more for health care than the citizens of any other nation, with costs rising every year, yet we experience more disease and our expected lifespan is years shorter than residents of many other countries. The problem is not our lack of medical expertise; it lies within our core approach to health and the very way in which we live. American health care does not help people become or stay healthy.
Integrative medicine holds the potential to resolve many of our nation’s health care challenges because it emphasizes prevention and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, and environmental influences that affect a person’s health. Health is not just determined by genetic inheritance — it is also determined by lifestyle choices; the quality of our air, water and food; the natural and built environments; and our circles of social support, including those with whom we live, work and play.
Data supporting the efficacy and cost effectiveness of integrative approaches to health care comes from three sources – medical research conducted at universities, studies carried out by corporations developing employee wellness programs, and pilot projects run by insurance companies. These studies reveal that immediate and significant health benefits and cost savings could be realized by utilizing three integrative strategies:
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Data supporting the efﬁcacy and cost effectiveness of an integrative approach to healthcare comes from three sources: medical research conducted at universities, studies carried out by corporations developing employee wellness programs, and pilot projects run by insurance companies.
The integrative approaches being studied place the patient at the center of the care and address the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and environmental inﬂuences that affect a person’s health. Most importantly, they promote prevention by engaging the whole person in the attainment of a personalized lifestyle that supports health.
A review of the medical, corporate, and payer literature reveals that, to start, immediate and signiﬁcant health beneﬁts and cost savings could be realized throughout our healthcare system by utilizing three integrative strategies: (1) integrative lifestyle change programs for those with chronic disease, (2) integrative interventions for people experiencing depression, and (3) integrative preventive strategies to support wellness in all populations.
Integrative Lifestyle Change Programs
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the United States.
Research demonstrates that lifestyle change programs focusing on nutritional interventions, resiliency, moderate exercise, and the development of greater love, intimacy, and emotional wellbeing can mitigate and sometimes even reverse the progression of many chronic diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, hypercholesterolemia. If widely used in primary and chronic disease care settings, millions of dollars could be saved through reduced healthcare utilization.
The Clinical Research
In numerous randomized controlled trials conducted over the past 10 years, Dean Ornish, MD, has found that people with severe coronary heart disease were able to halt disease progression or reverse it without drugs or surgery by making comprehensive lifestyle changes. The interventions used included stress management through yoga and meditation, a low-fat vegetarian diet, smoking cessation, moderate exercise, and social support. These trials were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and other major medical journals.1-5
The June 2008 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published Ornish’s more recent work in prostrate cancer that demonstrated that lifestyle change can affect gene expression.6 The researchers found that improved nutrition, stress management, walking, and psychosocial support changed the expression of over 500 genes in men with early-stage prostate cancer. They also discovered that oncogenes associated with breast cancer and prostate cancer, as well as genes that cause heart disease, oxidative stress, and inﬂammation, were downregulated or “turned off,” whereas protective genes were upregulated or “turned on” by lifestyle change.
In September 2008, a related study published in The Lancet Oncology showed that these same integrative medicine interventions increased telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, which are the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live.7 The researchers found that telomerase, and thus telomere length, increased by almost 30% in only three months, suggesting that integrative lifestyle interventions can not only reverse disease but may also extend life span.
Stress reduction is a critical aspect of lifestyle change programs. Conventional therapies such as pharmaceutical interventions or surgeries typically treat symptoms but do not address the causes of most chronic disease, which are often rooted in unhealthy lifestyles and high stress levels. In a related body of research, the Transcendental Meditation program, which helps individuals self-regulate the activity of physiological stress response systems, has been demonstrated to be an effective intervention for people with cardiovascular disease. Similarly, various Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs, which reduce distress and promote emotional regulation through increased self-awareness, have proven extremely helpful for people living with chronic diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, and cancer.
A meta-analysis of 107 studies looking at stress reduction and blood pressure concluded that the Transcendental Meditation program alone was able to reduce both systolic and diastolic high blood in a signiﬁcant number of the subjects.8 A series of funded trials by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that patients participating in the Transcendental
Meditation program showed important reductions in hypertension,8-14 atherosclerosis,15,16 insulin resistance,17 left ventricular hypertrophy,18 and smoking and alcohol abuse,19,20 as well as improved functional capacity in patients with chronic heart failure.21 A nonrandomized trial showed that the Transcendental Meditation program increased exercise tolerance in coronary heart disease patients.22
A randomized controlled trial on the long-term practice of the Transcendental Meditation program in older subjects with high blood pressure found signiﬁcant decreases in all-cause and cardiovascular mortality (23% and 30%, respectively).23 A subsequent long-term randomized controlled trial of patients with coronary heart disease showed that Transcendental Meditation practice was associated with a 47% reduction in mortality, non-fatal myocardial infarction, and stroke compared with controls over an average of ﬁve-year follow-up.24
A meta-analysis of the studies about MBSR programs involving pain, cancer, heart disease, depression, and anxiety patients demonstrated that mindfulness practice can signiﬁcantly improve both physical and mental well-being.25
Cost Savings Implications
According to the American Heart Association, in 2006 1.3 million coronary angioplasty procedures were performed at an average cost of $48,399 per procedure, or more than $60 billion total; and 448,000 coronary bypass operations were performed at a cost of $99,743 per surgery, or more than $44 billion total.
The INTERHEART study, published in September 2004 in The Lancet, followed 30,000 men and women on six continents and found that changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90% of all heart disease.26 Projecting forward, if only 10% of the coronary angioplasty procedures and coronary bypass operations were avoided by utilization of lifestyle change programs, it would result in a savings of $10 billion annually.
The Preventive Medicine Research Institute conducted a demonstration project in collaboration with eight hospitals to determine if comprehensive lifestyle changes could be a safe and effective alternative to bypass surgery or angioplasty. After one year, almost 80% of participants were able to safely avoid heart surgery or angioplasty, and Mutual of Omaha calculated saving almost $30,000 per patient in the ﬁrst year.27
In a second demonstration project, Highmark BlueCross and BlueShield of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, partnered with hospitals in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Nebraska to test the Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease for those people with coronary artery disease. According to the 2003 BlueCross medical management report, these comprehensive lifestyle changes reduced total healthcare costs by 50% for those patients after only one year.
A third demonstration project of more than 2,000 patients at 22 hospital sites showed dramatic improvements in angina in more than 83% of patients.28 With direct healthcare costs of angina alone running more than $1 million per person over a lifetime, a low-cost effective treatment could save millions of dollars.
As lifestyle interventions are studied in other chronic diseases, this same cost savings capacity is being duplicated. A recent diabetes study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine evaluated individuals at high risk for diabetes mellitus and found “lifestyle intervention to be cost effective in all age groups.”29 The cost (which included direct and nondirect medical expenses adjusted over gained quality years) was approximately $8,800 for the lifestyle intervention as compared with a $29,900 cost for an oral drug (metformin) intervention.
Additionally, cost analysis studies published in Psychosomatic Medicine and the American Journal of Managed Care show that the practice of Transcendental Meditation lowered health insurance utilization, hospital inpatient days, hospital admissions, and hospital outpatient visits for all categories of disease studied.30,31 A Canadian study showed a longitudinal reduction in medical care utilization in patients practicing Transcendental Meditation, with cumulative savings of 13% per year in government payments to physicians.32,33
Integrative Interventions For People Experiencing Depression
Often overlooked and undiagnosed, depression is a costly illness in and of itself, but research indicates that patients with depression use more medical services than those who are not depressed because unresolved depression often contributes to other health disorders. If diagnosed and treated through integrative strategies, signiﬁcant savings would be realized in reduced healthcare utilization, such as less use of pharmaceuticals and fewer mental health visits, and through a reduction in associated diseases.
The Real Cost of Depression
Conservative estimates for the cost of illness for depression are $12.4 billion per year for direct treatment costs, including doctor visits, hospitalizations, pharmaceutical costs, and $4 billion per year for the consequences of not treating depression, such as loss of productivity and workplace absenteeism.34,35 In addition, depressed patients tend to use more healthcare services and sometimes have slower recovery rates. A recent study published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine found that frequent visitors to the ER were more likely to have higher levels of stress, lower levels of social support, and worse general health status. They were also much more likely to screen positive for depression.36 Another study of diabetes patients reported in General Hospital Psychiatry showed that patients with depressive symptoms had more hospitalizations and hospitalization days and reported missing signiﬁcantly more working days as compared with nondepressed individuals.37 A third study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “depressive symptoms in older adults are associated with a signiﬁcant increase in the cost of medical services.”38
Clearly, a signiﬁcant cost savings could be realized if patients were screened and treated for depression at various entry points into the health care system or through corporate health programs.
Effective Interventions From Integrative Medicine
Integrative medicine interventions for depression and stress include MBSR, Transcendental Meditation, cognitive therapy, and other mind-body therapies such as biofeedback.
In a recent literature review published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, investigators concluded that MBSR was useful as an intervention for a broad range of chronic disorders and problems. “Improvements were consistently seen across a spectrum of standardized mental health measures including psychological dimensions of quality of life scales, depression, anxiety, coping style and other affective dimensions of disability. Likewise, similar beneﬁts were also found for health parameters of physical wellbeing such as medical symptoms, sensory pain, physical impairment, and functional quality-of-life estimates.”25
One recent study investigated the effectiveness of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, a treatment combining mindfulness meditation and interventions taken from cognitive therapy. Symptoms of depression decreased from severe to mild levels in the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy group, whereas there was no signiﬁcant change in the control group.39 Similarly, another study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that looked at depression in older Americans concluded that, “cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for older people with depressive disorder.”40
A 14-week multimodal group treatment program was piloted to assess whether education, lifestyle modiﬁcation, meditation, and mind-body skills training would reduce symptoms and improve overall well-being in nonmedicated patients with moderate depression. Comparisons of pretreatment and posttreatment scores showed a clinically signiﬁcant decline in depressed mood and negative affect as well as signiﬁcant improvement across the positive affect and well-being measures.41
Cost Savings Through Integrative Medicine
Cost savings through integrative approaches are achieved through two main avenues: lower utilization of expensive medical interventions such as pharmaceuticals and mental health visits and the fact that many of these interventions, such as MBSR and mind-body skills training, are taught in groups, reducing per-patient provider time.
A recent trial conducted at Allina Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis, Minnesota, evaluated the use of resilience training for reducing symptoms of depression and presenteeism (when employees are present but their illness has a negative repercussion on business performance) in hospital employees. This training focused on mind-body skills development, exercise, and nutritional approaches. More than 60% of the employees achieved remission of their depression without the aid of medications, a cost savings in and of itself. However, in addition to lowered stress and anxiety levels, the researchers also found that the work productivity and activity impairment scores suggested a presenteeism cost savings of $2,181 per employee per year (Dr J. Dusek, Director, The Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, Allina Hospitals, private communication, April 2010).
Prevention Strategies To Support Wellness In All Populations
It is easier and cheaper to prevent the onset of disease than it is to treat it once a disease has developed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in corporate healthcare spending. Nearly 60% of all after-tax proﬁt is spent on corporate health beneﬁts. Additionally, 80% of these costs are spent on 10% of employees.42 Preventive measures focusing on strategies that support health and wellness, such as those found in integrative medicine lifestyle change programs, are successfully decreasing healthcare costs in corporations nationwide.
A review of the studies of comprehensive health management programs offered by employers as one approach to curtailing healthcare costs showed that in 2005 the employers experienced an average 26% reduction in healthcare costs and an average $5.81 returned for every $1 invested in work-site health promotion initiatives.43 In addition to good program design and a robust engagement strategy, the best of these programs included creating a strong culture of health, which includes environmental interventions such as modiﬁcations to the cafeteria and vending machine options. In addition, many corporations enhanced the physical environment to promote exercise and created quiet areas for relaxation and stress reduction.
In 2009, Drs Milani and Lavi conducted a test in two diverse workplace settings. The interventions consisted of work-site health education, nutritional counseling, smoking cessation counseling, physical activity promotion, selected physician referral, and other health counseling. Signiﬁcant improvements were demonstrated in quality of life scores, depression, and anxiety. Body fat, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, diastolic blood pressure, health habits, and total health risk scores all improved. In addition, average employee annual claim cost decreased 48% for the 12 months after the intervention, creating a six-fold return on investment.42
A recent review of the long-term impact of Johnson & Johnson’s health and wellness program indicated a large reduction in medical expenditures ($224.66 per employee per year) over a four-year period, with fewer outpatient visits and fewer mental health visits.44 A study assessing the impact of Highmark Inc’s employee wellness program found that both healthcare expenses and inpatient expenses were reduced and that the program yielded a return on investment of $1.65 for every $1 invested.45
In more targeted studies, a recent trial at the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, which tested an integrative medicine intervention for lower back pain (acupuncture and mind-body practices for stress reduction), found a signiﬁcant reduction in prescription pain medication intake, suggesting a potential long-term economic beneﬁt to the company.46 Another employee health program study reported in Preventive Cardiology evaluated cardiac risk factors. The interventions included health education, smoking cessation programs, stress management, weight management, and membership in a health club, among other strategies. The researchers found that medical costs decreased for the employees in the program by $1,539 annually, and that every $1 invested in work-site interventions resulted in $6 in healthcare savings.42
A recent report from Mathematica Policy Research Inc that evaluated the preventive health services and analyzed their cost effectiveness found that “Preventive services have intuitive appeal: if a disease can be detected early or prevented altogether, the cost of treating it can be reduced or eliminated. However, relatively few services have been shown to reduce lifetime total health care costs.”47 But most of the services described in this study i.e. blood tests for cardiovascular disease; screenings for colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and diabetes; and vaccines for hepatitis B and measles were detection efforts rather than actual preventive strategies. Although these interventions do help in the early detection of disease, they are costly. The study did not, however, look at integrative medicine interventions aimed at actual prevention.
Similarly, the article also stated that, “Some interventions targeted at personal behavior (such as intensive diet counseling) may not change behavior enough to offset the costs of the intervention.” One of the lessons learned in integrative medicine clinics over the past decade is that a single intervention rarely works as well as a multifaceted approach. Care has to treat the whole person and address all the factors that inﬂuence health and disease. Although integrative lifestyle change programs offer nutritional counseling, they also include stress reduction interventions, moderate exercise, mind-body training, environmental assessments, and social support, as demonstrated by the Ornish data. It is the combined effort that produces lasting behavior change.
Based on the potential for integrative medicine to reduce costs and improve healthcare for patients, as evidenced in the information presented in this paper, we believe that several large nationally based demonstration projects comparing the cost and clinical effectiveness of integrative medicine interventions to the current standard of care would reveal substantial beneﬁt in three areas: integrative lifestyle change programs for those with chronic disease, integrative interventions for people experiencing depression, and integrative prevention strategies to support wellness in all populations.
This report was prepared for The Bravewell Collaborative by Mimi Guarneri, MD; Bonnie Horrigan; and Connie Pechura, PhD.
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