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Complementary And Alternative Medicine Dialogue Among Patients And Providers Is Lacking

massageDespite their high use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), Americans over the age of 50 often do not discuss CAM use with their health care providers, a survey indicates. The results, from AARP and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health were released today. Check the end of this report for a link to download the original study.

Overall, 53 percent of respondents reported that they had used CAM at some point in their lives. Among those, 58 percent said they had discussed CAM with a health care provider.

This dialogue is important because, while CAM is a part of health and wellness for many Americans, some CAM products can interact with conventional medicine.

CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care interventions, practices, products, or disciplines that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. CAM includes natural products such as herbal supplements, and manual therapies and mind/body practices, such as chiropractic care, massage, acupuncture, and meditation.

Use of CAM among the 50 and older population is widespread. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that 44 percent of people aged 50-59 use some form of CAM, compared to the average adult use rate of 38 percent.

“Older Americans want to lead healthy, active lives, and that means using health care safely,” said AARP Vice President Elinor Ginzler. “For many people, CAM is an important part of staying healthy, but some CAM products may make conventional medicines less effective or lead to potentially dangerous interactions. Health care providers and patients need to start talking together to ensure you get the full benefit of both CAM and your medications.”

Other findings from the AARP/NCCAM survey suggest that if CAM is discussed at a medical appointment, it is most likely to be brought up by the patient. Respondents were twice as likely to say they raised the topic rather than their health care provider. According to the survey, the two main reasons that the patients gave for a lack of discussion with their health care providers are that the provider never asks (42 percent) and the patients did not know they should bring it up (30 percent).

In the survey, the most frequently cited reasons for using CAM are for general wellness (77 percent), to help reduce pain or treat a painful condition (73 percent), to treat a specific health condition (59 percent), and to supplement conventional medicine (53 percent). Those surveyed could provide more than one reason for using CAM.

“In this survey, we found that 37 percent of respondents have used an herbal product or dietary supplement in the past 12 months. Some of these natural products can interact with conventional treatments,” said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of NCCAM. “As we’ve learned from NCCAM-funded research into herbal and dietary supplements, natural does not always mean safe. Thus, an open dialogue about CAM use, particularly herbals and dietary supplements, is vital to ensuring safe and coordinated care.”

The AARP/NCCAM survey was conducted by telephone interview in October 2010, with a random sample of 1,013 people aged 50 and older.

NCCAM’s Time to Talk campaign encourages patients to tell their providers about CAM use and providers to ask about it by offering tools and resources — such as wallet cards, posters, and tip sheets — all of which are available for free at

Material adapted from NIH.

For a complete copy of the survey report, please visit

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