How often does a patient pull out a paper with each medication and dosage meticulously listed when you ask about the medications they take? Not very often? And what about those times when patients tell you about all their medications but then neglect to tell you about the handful of herbs and concoctions they take every day because they don’t consider it real medicine?

Of all the things patients might withhold from their health care providers, they usually neglect to mention alternative therapies because they just forget about them. They don’t realize how something as harmless as fish oil can impact other medications. Or maybe they don’t really want you to know they are trying to manage mild symptoms of depression by using herbs.

How can you get patients to open up about any alternative or complementary therapies they might be trying? First, don’t forget to ask. By opening the door to the conversation, you’ll not only jog the memories of those who just forgot to tell you, but you’ll also let them know it’s okay to talk about.

Having a conversation with patients about different therapies they use to treat whatever symptom they are having gives you insight you might not normally get. It lets you know what symptoms they are experiencing physically and emotionally that they feel needs improvement or needs to change. Are they feeling low on energy? They decided the ginkgo their neighbor takes would work for them. Are they queasy and taking ginger to see if it will go away? Now you have an idea of potential underlying problems that they might not have mentioned otherwise.

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By initiating the conversation about herbal or alternative therapies, you can let the patient know you are okay with talking about it. Lots of people feel silly for trying herbs and tinctures and are afraid to bring it up to medical staff. Let patients know that you’re actually a great resource for information because you’ll let them know of any potential drug interactions between what medications they are taking or even between alternative therapies they are on.

And, of course, patients need to know that alternative therapies, even the all natural ones, are still considered to have potent medicinal properties. No, they aren’t behind the pharmacy counter, but they can have wide-ranging effects on the body and can have a major impact on whatever prescription drugs they may be taking. Knowing everything your patient is taking can help both the health care team and the patient make informed choices. You can guide them to reputable herbal suppliers and give dosage guidelines as well. You’ll also be able to raise a red flag if they are taking something that can change the way their regular medications work.

Talking about alternative therapies patients either use or are interested in gives you a much more informed and bigger picture of the patient. Some people turn to alternative therapies as a way to avoid prescriptions, other do it to try to treat symptoms they are reluctant to discuss, and others use them when they feel desperate if traditional medicine isn’t working. If you can understand not only what they are taking, but why, you’ll build trust and be able to treat the patient with a much broader scope.

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In the end, the patient will make more informed choices and the health care team will know a little more of what’s going on. Either way, opening the door to talking about alternative medications and therapies as a big step towards building the trust so essential between health care providers and their patients.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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