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Don't Ignore Questions on Alternative Medicine

Katherine M. Bennett

Even if you endorse only conventional medicine, you still have an obligation to help your patients sort through the evidence on nontraditional treatments. This according to two Duke University physicians who wrote in the Nov. 11, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Finding the right response to patients' inquiries can be difficult because there is little information available on the safety and efficacy of using alternative medicine alone, much less in combination with conventional medicine. 

In its Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management, the American Cancer Society (ACS) advocates for peer-reviewed scientific evidence of safety and efficacy of all cancer interventions before they can be recommended. Recently, for example, Italian researchers studied a popular alternative treatment for cancer, which cost patients about $7,900 a month in U.S. dollars, and showed that it did not prolong survival. The study appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Cancer, a publication of ACS. 

The quality of herbal products also is under increasing investigation as more researchers confirm that these products are not exactly what their labels claim. As for homeopathy, a systematic review of the literature, in the November issue of Journal of Pain Symptom Management, showed that homeopathic products did no better than placebo at preventing migraines. 

Unconventional nutritional practices are gaining popularity as well, and a basic overview of the evidence was published in the Nov. 27 issue of BMJ

ACS urges health care professionals to ask patients about their use of alternative medicines. Open, noncritical discussions about the evidence are essential to helping patients make informed decisions. 

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