Is there a place for complementary medicine in general practice?

By: Yolanda Smith – MedicalSearch Writer
30 October, 2014

There is an increasing demand from patients wanting to explore the possibility of complementary medicine and medical professionals find themselves wedged in the decision of how to respond.

Complementary medicine includes homeopathic and herbal medicines, in addition to therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic, hypnotherapy and osteopathy. Some of these therapies are supported by moderate evidence, whilst others have very little evidence to recommend the use to the current population. 

An integrated health approach

Whether general practitioners recommend or criticise complementary medicine, some patients will continue to use these practices regardless.

Additionally, many patients – estimated up to 60 per cent – using these therapies do not inform their general practitioner for various reasons. This may be due to the belief that natural is safe and therefore unnecessary to discuss with the practitioner for fear of disapproval.

For traditional herbal medicine and alternative or natural therapies in particular, there is the potential for adverse effects and drug interactions with conventional medicines. As such, it may be beneficial for general practitioners to be involved in the use of these therapies to provide a central reference point and oversee their safe use in conjunction with other treatment methods. 

Compromising on practitioner credibility

However, many of the complementary medicine therapies lack reliable evidence that is required for conventional medicines used in today's society. Therefore, the advice general practitioners are able to provide concerning complementary medicine is not always well founded or supported by reliable sources.

If general practitioners embrace an integrated health approach and advocate the use of complementary medicines, they could damage the credibility the public has come to expect from their services. Patient trust in the skill of general practitioners is at the core of the medical profession and is essential for maintaining an optimal relationship to promote healthcare. 

The current outlook

In 2010, approximately one third of general practitioners claimed they practised with an integrated health approach and advocated the use of complementary medicine where appropriate.

Whilst many practitioners were aware of side effects associated with common complementary medicines, it is clear that knowledge is lacking for general practitioners to provide comprehensive information and advice regarding these therapies.

Read Australian general practitioner views on complementary medicines

It is possible that a place exists for complementary medicine in general practice, helping to minimise barriers and incompatibilities between therapies. However, further research to support the use of these therapies needs to be undertaken and communicated to general practitioners in order to equip them with the knowledge required for concerted use.