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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: To Use or Not to Use?

By Sunita Vohra and Heather Boon

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is often defined as “health care approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine”. Examples include natural products (e.g. herbs, vitamins, probiotics) and practices (e.g. Traditional Chinese Medicine, massage therapy, mindfulness meditation).   

Three things to know about CAM:

  1. CAM is commonly used used; 70% of Canadians use CAM (most often products, but also a variety of practices).

  2. CAM is not often discussed; most people use CAM without discussion with their health care provider.

  3. It is important to ask every patient at every visit about all the things they are doing to support their health - please give examples to help them understand what you mean (e.g. vitamins, herbs, supplements, changing their diet, seeing other providers). Good care requires open communication

Three myths to dispel about CAM:

Myth #1: There is no evidence about CAM.

The Reality: There are thousands of randomized controlled trials about CAM.

Myth #2: Everything natural is safe.

The Reality: Anything that can help may have capacity to harm. Caution is necessary before mixing natural health products with prescription medicines.

Myth #3: Health care providers don't need to know about CAM use; it is a waste of time and there are no resources to help respond to patient questions.

The Reality: Many patients report positive experiences, which is highly relevant to providing patient-centered care - patient values, preferences, and beliefs matter. There are excellent evidence-based resources available to help inform health care providers.

More information can be found at Health topics A-Z from the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and MedlinePlus: Herbs and Supplements

Sunita Vohra is a Centennial Professor at the University of Alberta, Dr. Sunita Vohra is a pediatrician and clinician scientist. Dr. Vohra is the founding director of Canada’s first academic pediatric integrative medicine program, the Complementary and Alternative Research and Education (CARE) program at the Stollery Children’s Hospital. In 2013, she was awarded the Dr. Rogers Prize for excellence in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and elected into the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, one of the highest honours for individuals in the Canadian health sciences community.

Heather Boon is a Professor and the Dean of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto.  She is currently the Director of the Canadian Interdisciplinary Network for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research (IN-CAM) ( as well as the President of the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research ( ).

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