Talking to Your Doctor About Alternatives

So you've found yourself an alternative therapy you'd like to try with or in place of your doctor's current recommendations... Maybe you've even gone ahead and started the treatment. Of course you should tell your doctor, right? But somehow you forgot to bring it up. You're anything but alone in your intrepidation. According to a 1999 study performed at the University of California at San Francisco Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine, the vast majority of breast cancer patients incorporate alternative therapies, but don't discuss them with their conventional doctors. Why all the secrecy? The study patients cited their doctors' disinterest, and lack of ability to contribute useful information as leading reasons they kept their alternative therapies to themselves.

In the seven or so minutes the average doctor gives each patient, it's rare enough to get the bare minimum information about the standard approach to your disease (i.e., "This is the name of your disease, and this if what everyone is taking to control it"). One 1999 analysis of over a thousand audio-taped doctor-patient interviews revealed that discussion of basic information about standard treatments, such as side-effects, almost never happened, so expecting enthusiastic chit chat about alternatives that address the cause of your health concern is even more unrealistic unless you're determined and prepared.

Understand Where Your Doctor is Coming From, Then Take the Lead

Your doctor is given no industry incentives to learn about natural or non-drug therapies. He is not even required to stay up on independent research in medical journals for new treatment options. In fact, many doctors depend almost solely on pharmaceutical sales reps to "educate" their ongoing treatment protocols. For example, numerous well-designed, published studies on the efficacy of natural remedies such as black cohosh in relieving symptoms of menopause have existed since the late seventies, and yet your doctor is not likely to have known (or talked) about them until recently. The truth is, most doctors' knowledge and treatment protocols lag years and even decades behind the scope of available research. And in reality, it may be you that brings him up to speed.

In a TV interview in July of 2000, Dr. Bill Fair, the former chairman of urology at the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center told NBC 4's Dr. Max Gomez, "I would like to think that this movement back towards more primal systems was something that originated within medicine, but it hasn't. It's the patients doing the originating. They're leading it.

David G. Edelson, M.D., founder of HealthBridge, a state-of-the-art New York-based integrative medical facility.

Arm Yourself and Your Doctor With Information

At the dawn of the most major medical upheaval in history, you need to arm yourself with a working knowledge of your health issues and options, so as not to fall victim to the current power struggle between the past and future of healthcare. There are many cutting edge books that can quickly expand your knowledge of alternative therapies. You can find these books at natural product stores, your local library or book store. You can also access free indexed medical literature from the vast Medline database through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at http://www.pubmed.com. Just type in your condition or the substance or drug you want information on. Some natural product stores have computerized information kiosks with very reliable information from the Healthnotes database. It is possible that after only one session of personal research that you may be more informed of the full scope of your proven healing options than your doctor.

"Many years ago, before I became aware of the healing powers of natural therapies, one of my menopause patients presented a book on natural and bio-identical hormone therapies and asked me to read it. I was impressed with the information and started to incorporate it into my practice." Dr. Edelson recommends that patients bring in such credible sources as the Physician's Desk Reference (PDR) Herbal, a highly referenced and trusted guide which speaks your doctor's language of therapeutic dosages, side effects, interactions (you can order the guide by calling 800-622-9208).

More Helpful Hints:

  • When broaching the subject of alternatives, ask not what your doctor thinks of alternatives. Ask him what he knows. A good doctor will tell you if he's not familiar with a given treatment.

  • Get your doctor on the same page with your objectives. For example, if you are more interested in identifying the cause of your problem, or with long-term quality-of-life, than being handed a prescription that treats a symptom (while causing new problems), tell your doctor up front. This will often make a huge difference in the course of treatment he recommends.

  • Dr. Edelson recommends that you set up a phone call between you doctor and any other members of your healing "team." For example, he often has acupuncturists converse with specialists. "Your doctor may be more amenable to working in concert with other healing modalities if he makes personal contact."

  • If surgery or long-term prescription drug therapy are recommended, consider a second opinion from a complementary MD experienced in both conventional and alternative treatments for your condition. Important: Dr. Edelson stresses that a second opinion regarding any serious illness should not come from an alternative practitioner who is dead-set against drugs or surgery, since it is important that your healthcare provider be able to recognize when a situation requires critical intervention, as was the case for one patient who risked kidney failure, due to their herbalists failure to recognize when symptoms had reached a critical stage.


Some products also include L-arginine as a hair-growth-promoting substance. L-arginine has several characteristics that may benefit hair follicles: It boosts nitric oxide levels, promotes circulation and aids in the release of human growth hormone.

Keep in mind that these products, like all herbal remedies, typically take several months to slow or stop hair loss, and several months more to show regrowth. And if a follicle has died, it cannot be revived. But resting or sluggish follicles that produce increasingly thin or short-lived hairs can often be stimulated or saved from further damage if the cause is properly identified.

Red Flags: When To Find a New Doctor

If your doctor:

  • Doesn't admit what he doesn't know

  • Generalizes about "alternatives" or "supplements"

  • Is not open to peer reviewed, published studies about non-drug therapies

  • Doesn't listen to your full explanation of symptoms (which is required for effective treatment with alternatives), or

  • Rejects your suggestions without explanation or exploration (this is disrespect), find another doctor.

Stand Your Ground: Never Doubt the Validity of Alternative Therapies

Until the late nineties, there was virtually no funding coming from the government for the study of unpatentable, non-drug therapies. Most studies were publicly funded and done overseas. But today there are well over 8000 clinical studies proving the efficacy of all kinds of natural substances in alleviating, preventing or even reversing all kinds of diseases, including mild to moderate depression, cholesterol problems and type II diabetes to name a few. Furthermore, science has consistently shown that when the conventional route is taken, better results are achieved when they are combined with nutritional and alternative therapies.

Luckily, many MDs have begun to inform themselves on their own time, even without lavish pharmaceutical-grade incentives. But if you are still unsatisfied with the information or level of respect coming from your doctor, it may be time to look for a complementary physician who integrates the best of alternative and conventional healing techniques. To find one near you, contact the American Academy for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM) website at www.acam.org Telephone 800-532-3688. Remember: your doctor works for you. By fully informing yourself and the decisions you and your doctor make together, you give yourself the gift of the best treatment possible.

Myth: "Supplements Are Unregulated and Unproven"

This comment is a dead giveaway that your doctor knows very little about supplements. Dietary supplements are regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA). They are subject to extensive labeling requirements, including full disclosure of ingredients and nutrition information as well as truthful, non-misleading claims and special FDA censorship of structure/function claims which are, in the opinion of many leading experts in the fields of complementary and alternative medicine, unfairly censored in light of accumulating scientific evidence (such as the benefits of folic acid, which were not allowed by the FDA to be stated on labels until the Federal Appellate Court ruled in 1999 that the FDA had unconstitutionally suppressed valid claims for nearly a decade. Certainly, poor quality supplements and bogus claims are out there, but it is easy enough to stick with reputable brands, demand peer reviewed, published scientific evidence, and be suspicious of super-cheap supplements. This is one area where you tend to get what you pay for.

Kat James

 
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