During my early career as a hospital nurse I relied mostly on pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures, but during graduate school one of my favorite classes was Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Topics ranged from meditation and aromatherapy to acupuncture and Native American healing.
Most CAM practices focus on treating the whole person, individualized treatment and self-care. Many are deeply rooted in traditional medicine and spiritual beliefs. Any practice that does not fall into conventional medical practices is usually considered to be alternative medicine.
The class kept my interest from week to week and opened my eyes to a world beyond conventional Western medicine, and after taking it I wondered why more providers were not incorporating CAM into their practices or referring patients to alternative practitioners.
With the modern push towards evidence-based practice, some providers are skeptical about any treatment not supported by good research studies — they complain that CAM is not based on scientific evidence. I would argue that research has proven that many common conventional medical practices are ineffective, but these still widely used.
Another barrier to CAM is that insurance does not always cover alternative treatments. Because of this it is understandable that alternative medicine is widely perceived as therapies for the rich.
Although I often recommend that clients see a chiropractor or acupuncturist for back pain or headaches, the sad fact is that it is cheaper to just fill a prescription for pain medication. But these drugs just mask the pain rather than actually treating the problem.
Much of complementary medicine is rooted in preventative medicine. Nutrition, often considered a CAM therapy, plays such a huge role in preventing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancers. This is an easy topic to cover during an annual exam and should be addressed by providers yearly, at minimum, particularly with high-risk populations.
Herbal supplements, another CAM modality, can be helpful in women’s health. Evening primrose oil can reduce breast pain. Fenugreek and blessed thistle are helpful in increasing a breastfeeding mother’s milk supply. Black cohosh can ease menopausal symptoms. Keep in mind that herbals, like any medication, should be used judiciously and patients should be monitored carefully for side effects and drug interactions.
Until insurance companies begin regularly covering even the more studied and accepted CAM modalities, it is up to providers to be creative and merge conventional Western medicine with less conventional treatment options.
Any provider can discuss alternative therapies during a routine office visit. When patients complain of stress or mild depression, meditation and yoga are effective first line therapies before turning to medications that often have unwanted side effects. Try discussing these options with patients before you write your next prescription.