Patient Care

Veteran Perceptions, Interest, and Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

An analysis of a veteran survey on complementary and alternative medicine services revealed that health-related self-efficacy predicted their use.

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Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are health and wellness practices that are outside conventional allopathic medicine. In the U.S., the popularity of CAM has grown, and patients often use CAM to treat pain, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.1-5 Veterans also have been increasingly adding CAM to conventional medicine, although limited studies exist on veteran use and attitudes toward CAM.6-8

Recently, the VA has increased its CAM services, offering different treatments at various VA facilities where CAM is most commonly used to treat anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and back pain.9 Some veterans also seek CAM services outside the VA.6,8 Across studies of veterans and the broader population, having more years of education and higher income and being middle-aged, female, and white were associated with greater CAM use.1,3,6-8

Some CAM practices, such as acupuncture, require a practitioner’s regular and direct involvement. Other, independent CAM practices can be taught in classes, individual sessions, or through self-instructional multimedia. Once learned, these practices can be done independently, allowing for easier and less costly access. Independent CAM practices, such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, qigong, and tai chi promote general wellness or treat a particular ailment.

Although results have been mixed, several studies support independent CAM practices for treatment and symptom relief. For example, yoga improves symptoms in neurologic and psychiatric disorders, lessens pain, and helps decrease anxiety and depression and improve self-efficacy.10-13 Qigong can improve hypertensionand self-efficacy.14,15

This study examines veterans’ attitudes and beliefs about CAM, which can affect their interest and use of CAM services within and outside the VA. The focus is exclusively on independent CAM practices. At the time of the study, the availability of more direct CAM practices, such as acupuncture, was limited at many VA sites, and independently practiced techniques often require fewer resources and, therefore, could be adapted more easily. Subsequent references to CAM in this study refer only to independent CAM practices.

The current study surveyed veterans in New Jersey in multiple VA clinics and non-VA peer-counseling settings as part of an implementation study of a veteran-centric DVD called the STAR (Simple Tools to Aid and Restore) Well-Kit (SWK), which serves as a veteran introduction to CAM.16 Before watching the DVD, veterans were asked to fill out a baseline survey about their knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences with CAM as well as answer screening and demographic questions.

The authors describe the findings of the baseline survey to inform how to best implement CAM more broadly throughout VA. They expected that knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences with CAM would vary by clinical setting and respondent characteristics and hypothesized that psychological factors would be related to interest in CAM. Finally, barriers and facilitators of use of CAM are reported to inform policies to promote veteran access to CAM.


This cross-sectional analysis of the baseline SWK surveys had no inclusion or exclusion criteria because participation was anonymous. Recipients received a packet that instructed them to complete a previewing survey, watch the DVD, and complete a postviewing survey about the DVD. Surveys were returned in person or by postage-paid envelopes. No follow-up reminders were provided. This study examines data from only the previewing survey, and all further references to the veteran presurvey refers to it as the survey.

Study sites were the outpatient services of the VA New Jersey Health Care System (VANJHCS) and a non-VHA New Jersey veteran peer-counseling office. VANJHCS, which enrolls patients from northern and central New Jersey, offers health care services at 2 campuses and 9 outpatient clinics. Waivers of informed consent were approved by the VANJHCS Institutional Review Board and Research and Development Committee given the anonymous and low-risk nature of the research.

Participant Recruitment

The survey was distributed at 4 settings selected with a focus on ambulatory services and a goal of ensuring participant diversity in age, deployment experience, and mental and physical health conditions. At 3 settings, surveys were distributed using 3 methods: by a researcher; left for pickup in waiting rooms; or by selected health care providers at their discretion in the context of routine clinical visits. The VANJHCS settings were outpatient mental-health clinics, outpatient primary-care settings, and outpatient transition-unit clinics for recent combat veterans. The fourth setting was a community veteran peer-support organization staffed by veterans and included events held at the organization’s offices, veteran informational and health fairs in the community, and outreach events at college campuses. In this setting, veteran peers distributed the SWK at their discretion; they were given suggested talking points for distribution.

Survey Data Collection

Veterans filled out baseline surveys before viewing the SWK DVD. The surveys were anonymous but coded with a number to allow for tracking by setting and dissemination method. The surveys asked for demographic and health information and experience with and interest in CAM techniques. To minimize respondent burden, the authors focused on the most critical domains as summarized in the background section (demographics; health status and symptoms, including pain; self-efficacy; mental health conditions; knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about CAM).


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