Alternative Medicine and Patient Self-Care

by Lauren Claus

Although the words “health care” typically evoke images of doctors and drugs, many people nowadays see yoga teachers and acupuncture specialists, as well as physicians, to meet their needs. In the United States, 38% of adults and 12% of children use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, which is defined as any product or service related to health care that is not provided by medical doctors and other conventional health professionals (1).  Currently, there is a large debate about alternative medicine, focusing on how complementary and alternative treatments—such as yoga, acupuncture, and herbal remedies—could be harmful rather than helpful to patients (2). Critics often disparage both the government for not regulating these treatments, as well as alternative medicine providers for using these unscientific approaches to medicine. Although forms of alternative medicine are increasingly undergoing rigorous studies, funded by organizations such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the debate has not reached a clear consensus (3). Through it all, one clear issue still demands attention—how dangerous is it for consumers to choose and use alternative medicine as a means of self-care?

In 2007, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated that $22 billion out of the total $33.9 billion that United States citizens spend on alternative and complementary medicine each year is directed towards efforts at “self-care” (4). Self-care costs are defined as expenditure on complementary and alternative products and classes which consumers may choose without consulting a physician. Although it may not initially seem dangerous to give consumers free rein to purchase herbal medicines or yoga classes, problems can arise when patients neglect to make appointments about medical problems, believing that they can treat themselves with natural remedies. When patients use alternative medicines, physicians might be prevented from having full access to knowledge about their patients’ medical conditions. For instance, patients may not inform their physicians that they are taking herbal supplements every day, leaving their physician unaware of this during a routine check-up.

In fact, patients routinely fail to inform their physicians that they use alternative medicines—and sometimes deliberately (5). According to a national survey from 2001, approximately 70% of patients who see both a medical doctor and a complementary or alternative medicine provider do not mention one or more alternative treatments to the doctor. The survey respondents cited many reasons for doing so, including the fact that their doctor had never asked about such treatments during the appointment. Alarmingly, however, 31% of the participants claimed that they deliberately withheld information because “it was none of the doctor’s business,” and others said they believed that the medical doctor would disapprove of such treatments. This certainly compromises doctor-patient relations, and may even compromise the physician’s ability to accurately prescribe medication to suit the patients’ needs.

Alternative medicine could also pose a danger if patients attempt to diagnose and treat themselves using the Internet, where detailed instructions and information about many alternative medicines can be found. This possibility is made all the more likely because, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 15% of social media users receive medical information from social media sites, which are not regulated for their accuracy. (6). Although the Internet can provide ample information about mild illnesses, such as a common cold, people may misdiagnose or overlook serious conditions if they rely too heavily on the Internet instead of visiting their doctor.

Because of the potential risks of alternative medicines, perhaps efforts should be made to analyze whether patients use them as a means of supplementary self-care or in place of conventional medical treatment. Despite the unique benefits that alternative treatments may offer patients looking for self-care options, these treatments can become dangerous if they interfere with the physician-patient relationship and the physician’s ability to prescribe proper care. Although coming to an eventual consensus on the debate over alternative medicine is important, so too is it critical for patients to find the right balance between treatments they seek out for themselves and treatments their doctors prescribe.

1: (2008). The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved from: http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2007/camsurvey_fs1.htm#use

2: Offit, P. (2013). DO You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. New York: Harper Collins.

3: Research Results. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved from http://nccam.nih.gov/research/results

4: Nahin et al. (2009). Costs of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Frequency of Visits to CAM Practitioners: United States, 2007. National Health Statistic Reports.

5: Eisenberg et al. (2001). Perceptions about complementary therapies relative to conventional therapies among adults who use both: results from a national survey. Ann Intern Med, 135, 344-51.

6: Bartz, A. & Ehrlich, B. (2012). Be careful when diagnosing your ailments online. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/08/tech/social-media/netiquette-online-diagnoses/index.html

Categories: Fall 2013

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