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What Docs Think About Alternatives

North Americans visit alternative medicine practitioners more often than primary care physicians, suggesting widespread faith in alternative remedies. But what do doctors think about alternative medicine? Surprisingly, an analysis in the December '00 Archives of Internal Medicine finds that, on average, physicians in Europe, New Zealand, and Israel—particularly younger doctors—rate alternative approaches as "moderately effective."

Though the three most prevalent alternative approaches — acupuncture, homeopathy, and spinal manipulation — have not been proven effective, some physicians still incorporate them into practice because they think they might be, either directly or through a placebo effect. Doctors sometimes turn to alternative therapies when standard approaches fail. "A number of my colleagues recommend that patients with frustrating problems try alternative therapies," says Joseph Alpert, MD, head of the department of medicine at Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson. "For a patient with intractable arthritis, they might say, 'Let's try acupuncture and see how it works.'"

What may work even better is when patients suggest an alternative approach, says HealthNews associate editor Harry Greene, since that involves them in the healing process.

While alternative approaches may be helpful, Alpert warns that they can also be dangerous, either because they cause direct harm—as in the case of the herbal "remedies" ma huang and chaparral—or because users place undue faith in them and delay seeking proven treatments. For those who want to experiment with alternative therapies, Alpert advises discussing these plans with a physician so he or she can monitor any benefits or side effects and help you steer clear of therapies that are known to be dangerous.

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