How to Teach Your Doc about Alternative Medicine

If your doctor doesn’t recommend alternative therapies, he or she may just not know about them.

April 21, 2009

If your physician isn't aware of the latest alt-med research, bring him out of the dark ages.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Alternative medicine has gained in popularity in recent years, so much so that nearly 40 percent of all adults report using some form of nontraditional therapy. This popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by health experts, either. The recent U.S. stimulus package signed into law in February provided new research funding to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. However, according to a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, not all doctors are ready to jump on the bandwagon without a little prodding from their patients.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers surveyed 1,561 general internists, rheumatologists, acupuncturists, and naturopaths, asking if they were aware of two high-profile studies of alternative therapies for knee osteoarthritis. The practitioners were also asked whether they had ever recommended any of the therapies mentioned in the two studies. Those included chiropractic therapies, massage, acupuncture, glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, and meditation practices such as yoga.

Only 23 percent of the doctors were aware of both trials (although nearly 60 percent knew of at least one), with rheumatologists being the most likely to know of both. And, perhaps not surprisingly, internists and rheumatologists viewed published research and clinical evidence as more important than patient preferences when it came to professional decision-making about treatments, whereas acupuncturists and naturopaths put the heaviest weight on clinical evidence and patient preferences.

WHAT IT MEANS: Awareness of alternative medicine options hasn’t completely penetrated the world of conventional medicine, so there’s a good chance your doctor isn’t going make suggestions along those lines. Although that may leave the impetus up to you, it doesn’t mean your doctor will resist the idea if you bring it up, says lead author Jon Tilburt, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine and biomedical ethics at Mayo Clinic. “For conditions in which a physician doesn’t feel like there’s something life-threatening going on, doctors are generally pretty accepting” of a different way of doing things, Dr. Tilburt says. “In some cases, the tools we [doctors] have aren’t that great either. Look at the common cold,” he adds.

Here are a few ways to persuade your doctor to consider an alternative therapy for your condition.

• Mention that new study you’ve read or heard about. Among patients, “There is still this old-fashioned impression that ‘My doctor doesn’t care about CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), so I don’t want to talk about it,’” says Dr. Tilburt. But patients should speak up. If your doctor only spends 3 minutes with you, you can probably imagine that he or she doesn’t have much time to studiously analyze every study that comes out. So your doc may appreciate the info. “Doctors try to skim the big journals for big stories,” Dr. Tilburt says, “but life happens.”

• Divulge everything. Let your doctor know about any herbal supplements or alternative therapies you may be taking already. Not only will this make your interest in alt therapy explicit, it’s important for your health, since some alternative treatments can interact adversely with prescription drugs.

• Think complementary. Frame the discussion with alternative therapies playing a role that complements, rather than takes the place of, standard medical care. This should be the case especially if you have a serious or long-term health problem. For more tips on talking to doctors, visit the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.