Many Health-Care Workers Have Turned to Alternative Medicine

Their use of everything from herbals to massage exceeds that of the general public, research suggests

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By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Three out of every four U.S. health-care workers use some form of complementary or alternative medicine or practice to help stay healthy, a new report shows.

What's more, doctors, nurses and their assistants, health technicians, and healthcare administrators were actually more likely than the general public to use any number of wide-ranging alternative medicine options, including massage, yoga, acupuncture, Pilates or herbal medicines.

"No one has really done this sort of analysis before, so when I saw our results I was authentically surprised," acknowledged study co-author Lori Knutson, executive director of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing with the Allina Health System in Minneapolis. "But pleasantly so. Because clearly this means that even our health-care workers are recognizing the need for alternative options in the search for ways to improve our health and lives."

Knutson and her colleagues reported their findings this month in the journal Health Services Research.

According to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health), about 38 percent of Americans currently avail themselves of some form of complementary/alternative medicine, which can also include dietary supplements, meditation, chiropractic services, Pilates, and Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine.

The poll data, collected in 2007 as part of the National Health Interview Survey, looked at use among a nationally representative sample of more than 14,300 working adults 18 years old and up. About 1,300 of those surveyed were health-care providers and workers employed in either a hospital or ambulatory environment.

The survey covered 36 different forms of options, including therapies involving body manipulation, mind-body and biological-based therapies, and energy-healing treatments.

Doctors and nurses were found to be more than twice as likely as non-clinical health-care support workers to have tried out a practitioner-based complementary or alternative medicine service (such as a chiropractor) in the past year.

They were also almost three times as likely to have "self-treated" using complementary/alternative approaches versus their technical or administrative colleagues.

Overall, health-care workers were found to be bigger users of complementary/alternative medicine than those outside the health-care industry. Seventy-six percent of health-care workers said they had used such methods in the past year, compared to 63 percent of people working in non-healthcare fields.

And even when diets, vitamins, minerals, and/or herbal supplements were excluded from the range of options, health-care workers were still significantly more likely to have tried out a complementary medicine product or service over the prior year than the general public (41 percent versus 30 percent.)

But the reasons health-care workers turned to alterative/complementary medicine were similar to those seen elsewhere, with back, neck and joint pain being the three most prevalent concerns.

"In general, Western culture has believed that complementary services and techniques aren't as well-researched and evidence-based as conventional medicine," noted Knutson. "But that is certainly no longer the case. And so what I hope comes from this insight into practitioner use of complementary options is an opening up of the conversation between providers and patients about the use and potential of alternative medicine."

Judy Blatman, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents the supplements industry, seconded that notion.

"These results are not surprising, as in fact we've had similar findings looking at health-care practitioner attitudes and uses regarding dietary supplements," she noted. "So this is consistent with out own research."

"And I would agree," said Blatman, "that seeing that the very people who are considered to be the leaders in health are themselves more and more willing to go beyond what was a traditional model of treatment could be very helpful to consumers. Because we find that often patients feel uncomfortable talking to their providers about non-traditional disciplines for fear of being discounted. So this should put everyone more at ease."