In 2007, 38.1 million adults made an estimated 354.2 million visits to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners, and spent $33.9 billion spent on visits, products, classes and materials.
What’s the difference between complementary and alternative medicine? Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, for example, using aromatherapy to help lessen a patient’s discomfort following surgery. Alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine, such as using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy that has been recommended by a conventional doctor. In addition, there is Integrative medicine which combines mainstream medical therapies and CAM therapies for which there is some high-quality scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness. Together, CAM and Integrative Medicine offers a diverse range of healing philosophies, therapies and products.
Many CAM therapies are now considered mainstream and generally fall into five categories:
- Whole medical systems – Ayurveda, homeopathy, naturopathy
- Mind-body medicine – meditation, prayer, relaxation therapies
- Biologically based practices – dietary and herbal supplements
- Manipulative and body-based practices – massage, osteopathic, chiropractic
- Energy medicine – Qi Gong, Reiki, magnet therapy
A recent survey of individuals over the age of 50 showed that only 28% discussed the use of CAM with a physician and only 12% with a nurse or nurse practitioner.  It is vital for members of the healthcare team – including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists – to discuss them with patients, as some complementary or alternative products or practices may be unsafe. For example,
- Supplements can have drug-like effects or can interfere with prescription medications. John’s wort can decrease the effectiveness of numerous conventional drugs.
- Certain types of massage can be harmful for individuals taking blood-thinning medications, and women in the first three months of pregnancy should not have their abdomen, legs and feet massaged.
- Certain yoga poses should not be done by people who have glaucoma.
On average, a patient will spend 20 minutes with a nurse or physician’s assistant and 10.7 minutes with a doctor. This limited amount of time to discuss health history, current health issues, and non-prescribed products or practices leads many individuals seeking information on CAM to a dizzying array of resources online. It is important for members of the healthcare team to know which sites are providing authoritative, non-biased information, so they can direct patients to the best information possible.
The following CAM resources are advertisement-free, do not collect any personal data, and are continually updated with the most current scientific research.
Dietary Supplements Label Database provides information on over 6,000 selected brands of dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals and herbs. Compare label ingredients for different brands, and locate supplements that do not contain animal products. Dietary Supplements Label Database links to current research and known adverse effects.
HerbMed is an interactive herbal database providing evidence-based information from the Alternative Medicine Foundation on 20 of the most popular herbs.
MedlinePlus is the premiere consumer health information resource from the National Library of Medicine. It contains over 850 health topics in English and Spanish and 48 other languages. Visitors will find information on herbal and dietary supplements – including effectiveness, common dosages, and known drug interactions, in addition to current research, news, and clinical trials related to CAM.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center provides evidence-based information about herbs, botanicals, supplements, and more with a focus on cancer and treatment.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on the usefulness and safety of CAM interventions. The site’s evidence-based information on CAM treatments and conditions is available in English and Spanish. There are videos explaining acupuncture, meditation, Qi Gong, Tai chi, and more.
NCCIH Clinical Digest is a monthly summary of evidence-based information – including clinical guidelines, literature searches, research highlights, and information for patients – on complementary health practices for a specific health condition.
Office of Dietary Supplements provides science-based dietary supplement information in English and Spanish, as well as an online tool to calculate daily nutrient requirements, recommendations for infants, children, and pregnant and lactating women, and a mobile app to keep track of vitamins, minerals and herbs.
CAM on PubMed is a partnership of NCCAM and the National Library of Medicine, linking you to citations related to CAM therapies, approaches, and systems. PubMed is a free database from the NLM with over 18 million citations from 5,700 biomedical journals. There are nearly 750,000 citations that cover CAM topics.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides information on dietary supplement recalls and advisories, tips for evaluating information, and labeling and regulatory information.
For more information contact Dana Abbey or John Bramble.
 Nahin RL, Barnes PM, Stussman BJ, Bloom, B. Cost of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and frequency of visits to CAM practitioners: United States, 2007. National health statistics reports; no. 18. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2009.
 AARP/NCCAM Survey Report of U.S. Adults 50+, 2010.
 Gottschalk, A, Flocke, SA. Time spent in face-to-face patient care and work outside the examination room. Annals of Family. Medicine; 2005 November; 3(6): 410-419. [PMC Free Article] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1466945/