National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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National Institutes of Health • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

NCCAM Clinical Digest

Talking With Your Patients About Complementary Health Practices :
What the Science Says

March 2012
Doctor speaking to elderly man.

Why Should You Ask Your Patients About Use of Complementary Health Practices?

  • Most patients do not proactively disclose use of complementary health practices to their physicians.
  • Patients with chronic and acute medical conditions—including cancer, diabetes, back pain, and depression—turn to complementary health approaches in large numbers.
  • As more patients use complementary health practices, you need a full picture of all conventional and complementary practices they are using so that you can effectively manage their care.

How Can You Find the Time to Talk With Your Patients?

  • Include a question about complementary health practices use on medical history forms.
  • Ask your patients to bring a list of all therapies they use, including prescription, over-the-counter, herbal therapies, and other complementary practices.
  • Have your nurse, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant initiate the conversation.

Where Can You Refer Your Patients?

  • You can refer your patients to credible, Federal resources to get evidence-based information and patient education materials. The NCCAM Web site and MedlinePlus are two such resources. You do not need to know everything about all complementary health approaches.
  • Rigorous scientific research on complementary health products and practices is taking place at major academic and medical institutions throughout the United States.

What Are Other Findings From the Survey*?

Communication With Providers About Use of Complementary Health Practices

  • Overall, two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) reported that they had not discussed complementary health practices with any health care provider versus a third (33 percent) of respondents who reported that they had discussed it with a health care provider.

  • Among respondents who reported ever using a complementary health practice, a higher percentage, 58 percent, said they had discussed it with a health care provider.

  • People aged 50 and older were most likely to have discussed complementary health practices with their physician; less than half as many discussed it with other types of health care providers.

  • If complementary health practices are discussed at a medical appointment, they are most likely brought up by the patient: Respondents were twice as likely to say they raised the topic rather than their health care provider.

Topics Discussed With Providers

  • Respondents said their health care providers most often discussed the potential of interactions between complementary health practices and other medications or treatments; advice on whether to pursue treatments; the effectiveness of the therapy and what type to use; and the safety.

Reasons for Using Complementary Health Practices

  • Of those who have used complementary health practices, the most common reasons were to prevent illness or for overall wellness (77 percent) or to reduce pain or treat painful conditions (73 percent). Other popular uses were to treat a specific health condition (59 percent) or to supplement conventional medicine (53 percent).

Use of Prescription Medications

  • Overall, four out of five respondents (78 percent) reported taking one or more prescription medications. In addition to any complementary health approaches they use, 77 percent of people who have used complementary health practices in the past 12 months reported taking one or more prescription medications.

* NCCAM and AARP partnered on a consumer telephone survey to measure and understand communication practices between patients age 50 or older and their physicians. The survey confirms that patients and physicians often do not discuss the use of complementary health practices. The primary reasons are that patients do not know that they should tell their providers about their use of these practices, and physicians do not ask their patients about it.

Free Toolkit for Health Care Providers

Health care providers may order a FREE toolkit that includes posters, tip sheets, patient wallet cards, and other resource information to help encourage discussion of CAM use. To order a free toolkit, call the NCCAM Clearinghouse at 1-888-644-6226. For more information on Time to Talk or to read the full NCCAM/AARP report on CAM use communication, please visit nccam.nih.gov/timetotalk/.

NCCAM Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH, DHHS. NCCAM Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on CAM, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCAM-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is dedicated to exploring complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science, training CAM researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCAM Web site at nccam.nih.gov. NCCAM is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.

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Content is in the public domain and may be reprinted, except if marked as copyrighted (©). Please credit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as the source. All copyrighted material is the property of its respective owners and may not be reprinted without their permission.

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