The popularity of complementary and alternative medicine is on the rise, with more than one-third of American adults using at least one of these treatments, according to a recent report by the Institute of Medicine.
And if you're like most people who use these treatments, you probably don't mention them to your primary-care physician. You may think it's not important, you might just forget or you might think your doctor won't approve.
Dr. Robert Bonakdar, a family physician at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California, who blends conventional and alternative approaches, says it's crucial to tell your doctor about any alternative treatments that you are trying.
"Everything a patient is using is important for the doctor to know," he says. "Full disclosure enables full care."
"The best thing patients can do is be honest about what they are taking," says Dr. Janine Blackman, medical director of The Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and an assistant professor of family medicine.
Complementary and alternative medicine describes a wide variety of medical practices and products, according to the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Complementary describes the techniques that are used in conjunction with conventional medicine; alternative describes the techniques that can be used in place of conventional medicine.
Starting The Conversation
What is the best way to approach your doctor? First, understand that your doctor may not have much background or knowledge about these approaches, Bonakdar says. Few doctors, especially older ones, studied these treatments in medical school.
"Bring it up in an open manner," he suggests, by saying, This is something I am interested in, what do you think?
"The patients should expect the doctor to be open and nonjudgmental in the discussion of complementary treatments," he says. "They should hear you out."
One way to facilitate the discussion is to bring as much information as you can to the appointment. If you're interested in supplements, for example, take the bottle with you so the doctor can see the exact dose, formula and manufacturer.
Your doctor "should be able to educate you from their standpoint based on whether they think it is safe, appropriate and effective,,, he adds. If your physician is unfamiliar with the treatment you are interested in, you should expect him/her to offer to research it to see if there is any evidence that it works, Bonakdar says.
Physicians Need To Learn
In recent years, Blackman adds, more physicians have become open to alternative medicine or complementary approaches.
But a recent survey found that 84% of 302 physicians questioned thought they needed to know more about complementary and, alternative medicine to address patient questions and concerns adequately. Even so, nearly half had recommended an alternative or complementary treatment to a patient.
Similarly, patients must learn that there are dangers to mixing some complementary and conventional treatments, Blackman says. For example, certain dietary supplements can increase the action of blood-thinning medications, thinning the blood to dangerous levels, she says.
If your doctor isn't comfortable with an alternative or complementary approach that you feel strongly about, you still have options, Blackman maintains. Either find a new physician or continue seeing your doctor, alerting him/her about your decision to use the complementary or alternative approach. Then, you can consult someone else who is knowledgeable about the alternative therapy.