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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Questions Make Many Doctors Nervous, Survey Finds

Questions Make Many Doctors Nervous, Survey Finds

More people than ever are using some form of alternative and complementary medicine. While doctors used to be resistant to it, now they want -- and need -- to learn more about it, new research suggests. Although they know far more than they used to, it's still not as much as they think they should know to properly guide and treat patients.

"I think one message is that physicians may not be as closed minded as patients think," lead author Lisa Corbin Winslow, MD. "There are always going to be some physicians who are dismissive of these therapies, but most really do want to know more about them." Winslow is director of the University of Colorado's Center for Integrative Medicine.

A survey of 700 Denver-area doctors found that almost all of those questioned felt they needed to learn more about alternative approaches to care. And doctors are well aware that these treatments are widely used by their patients. Three out of four reported having patients who used complementary and alternative medicines and close to 60% said they had been asked about specific alternative treatments.

And contrary to what many people think, almost half of the doctors had recommended an alternative therapy.

The 700 Denver doctors were most likely to recommend acupuncture and relaxation techniques such as biofeedback and massage to their patients. Although 68% of doctors said they had patients who used herbal therapies, only about 20% said they would recommend them.

The findings are reported in the May 27 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

But the survey indicated that doctors do not often ask patients about their use of alternative treatments, and that many feel uncomfortable discussing the risks and benefits of such treatments. Over 80% of the doctors surveyed said they needed to know more about alternative medical approaches to discuss them intelligently with their patients. Female physicians were more likely to recommend alternative approaches than were males, and doctors who reported personal use of an alternative therapy were seven times as likely to recommend them to patients.

Alternative medicine expert Susan Lord, MD, says it is clear that more and more doctors are seeking out information on complementary medicine. When she started teaching a training program on mind/body medicine seven years ago, only about 10% of her students were doctors. These days, she says, doctors make up 30-40% of the class. Lord is a family practitioner who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington.

"Patients look to their doctors to have the answers when it comes to their health," she says. "I think a lot of this [doctor] interest is due to grass-roots pressure from patients who are demanding that their doctors know about these therapies."