It is generally understood that complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, while alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Many patients use complementary or alternative therapies.
This could be because:
- they have always used them (sometimes from before diagnosis)
- their disease is progressing and nothing else works
- conventional treatment has been deemed futile.
If a patient is taking complementary therapies you may be unaware of this. It may or may not affect your interactions with them. For example meditation or massage can be very beneficial, and generally don’t have adverse effects on other treatments if performed by a qualified practitioner. However, some complementary therapies may interact with prescribed medications or nutrient absorption. Discussing the patient’s use of complementary therapies is important to help determine whether the product is safe / appropriate.
It is always a good idea to check whether patients continue to take their prescribed medications, as they may substitute one treatment or drug for the other. This could be problematic for appetite and function for example, if they are not taking steroids. Patients may also take numerous medications with complementary therapies and find they have no appetite for food.
There may also be a cost consideration which can impact on the family. Social workers are well placed to discuss the impact of this and to clarify the goals or expectations of the complementary treatments.
Any health professional should communicate with doctors, nurses, dietitians or social workers if they become aware that patients are using complementary or alternative medicines or if they are concerned. They should also encourage patients to access credible information on the products they are using / taking.