Using CAM? Tell Your Doc

12 09 2011

According to some estimates, one in three adults in the United States uses complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). CAM encompasses anything that’s not part of conventional medicine, such as herbal supplements and acupuncture.

In spite of this widespread use, however, many people neglect to tell their physicians about their CAM use. Some may think their doctor won’t approve or think the CAM treatments irrelevant to conventional medical care.

As many as 60% may not divulge this information, and in many cases, it’s because their doctor didn’t ask for it.

Leaving your physician in the dark on your CAM use—or, if it’s your child, any CAM your child may use—can be dangerous. It’s important to let your doctor know everything about your personal healthcare practices, whether it’s vitamins, herbal treatments, chiropracty, or acupuncture.

Why? Well, drugs are often either synthetic mimics of natural compounds or derived from natural compounds, as are herbal supplements. Just like drugs, herbal supplements can have active ingredients that may interact with other compounds, including those your doctor may prescribe. For example, grapefruit seed extract, a popular CAM intervention, can interfere with many medications’ effects, including the blood thinner coumadin.

There may be hidden reasons, such as an instability of your cervical spine, that would make it important to avoid certain chiropractic manipulations.

In addition to these fundamental medical reasons to tell your doctor everything you’re doing for your health—or your child’s, it’s also important for less tangible reasons. Your health professional may be able, for example, to help you decide which CAM therapy is a good fit for your needs, point you to good information about a target CAM intervention, or discuss the benefits and risks with you.

In addition, sharing with your health professional makes you all a part of a healthcare team taking care of you, with you in the driver’s seat.

The National Institutes of Health has provided a few tips for people who’d like to talk more with their healthcare providers about CAM therapies. These include:

  • Starting the conversation yourself. Take the initiative to talk about your healthcare practices.
  • Have a list available of the therapies—CAM or otherwise—you’re using, including dosing and frequency. This information should be included on any patient histories you complete, right along with prescription medications or therapies you use.
  • Make a list of any questions you may have about a specific CAM intervention, and ask those questions.
  • Don’t hesitate to take notes or ask for clarification as you converse with your healthcare provider.

The most important thing to remember is, CAM therapies are like any other intervention: They can interact with other treatments you’re taking, sometimes negatively, and that’s fundamental information your healthcare provider needs to have, about you or your child.

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy of AAFP and Karen Woo