Many Americans don’t tell primary care physicians about complementary and alternative medicine use

March 22, 2016

More than 40 percent of Americans who use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) do not disclose it to their primary care providers.

A recent study through the School of Public Health and Center for Spirituality & Healing  looked at patients who used CAM across the U.S., and analyzed reasoning for disclosing or not disclosing that information to providers. The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Not telling primary care providers about using CAM can be dangerous, especially if the type of CAM being used creates adverse interactions with any medical treatments that a patient might be undergoing concurrently,” said lead author Judy Jou, M.A., a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health.

Jou says certain herbs and supplements can interact with prescription drugs, and one-fourth of people using them did not disclose it to their primary care provider. Some types of complementary and alternative medicine may impact other conditions, too. If someone is already receiving treatment for back pain from a chiropractor, for instance, a primary care provider could help by monitoring progress and making informed recommendations for any additional treatment.

It’s important for CAM providers and primary care providers to be aware of your care to avoid potential health issues and, in turn, develop the best treatment plan for each patient.

“Encouraging discussion of CAM use can help prevent medical complications that may arise from simultaneous use of conventional and CAM treatments,” Jou said.

Jou and Pamela Jo Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor in the Center for Spirituality & Healing’s Integrative Health and Wellbeing Research Program, analyzed data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, focusing on about 7,500 people who indicated using CAM of some sort over the last year.

Previous studies found that patients were nervous to talk to doctors about these therapies for fear of discouragement or disapproval. But the most recent study results reveal that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Our findings suggest that non-disclosure is most often due to lack of provider-initiated conversation about CAM, rather than patients’ concerns about providers discouraging the use of CAM,” Jou said.

In fact, less than 5 percent of the survey respondents who did not disclose CAM attributed the decision to past or potential discouragement from a physician.

Moving forward, Jou and Johnson hope to explore how communication about CAM could affect health, and whether health outcomes differ significantly when patients do or do not disclose CAM with their primary care providers.

“CAM has become very common, so it is increasingly important to conduct research on its integration with conventional medicine,” Johnson said.

“Talk to your doctor about complementary and alternative medicine,” Jou said. “The same goes for physicians. If we increase education and outreach efforts, perhaps patients will feel more comfortable discussing CAM with their providers.”