Disclosing complementary and alternative medicine use in the medical encounter: a qualitative study in women with breast cancer

J Fam Pract. 1999 Jun;48(6):453-8.


Background: Despite recent findings that patients who use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) typically choose not to mention this to their physicians, little is known about the reasons for this lack of communication. Understanding the reasons for nondisclosure of CAM use is critical to improving physician-patient communication and patient care.

Methods: We are conducting a 5-year prospective cohort study consisting of 4 interview cycles. The multiethnic, population-based sample consists of 86 San Francisco residents with recently diagnosed breast cancer (response rate = 87%). Findings are determined using qualitative analysis of transcribed interviews.

Results: At initial contact, 72% of the participants were using at least 1 CAM therapy for breast cancer. Six months later, 65% of participants were using CAM. Of the women being treated by an alternative practitioner, 54% disclosed their CAM use to their physicians. Conversely, 94% discussed details of their biomedical treatments with their alternative practitioner. Reasons for not disclosing CAM use included anticipating the physician's disinterest, negative response, or unwillingness or inability to contribute useful information; the perception that the CAM therapies used were irrelevant to the biomedical treatment course; and the patients' views regarding the appropriate coordination of disparate healing strategies.

Conclusions: Discussions of patients' CAM use are more poorly integrated into the medical encounter than discussions of biomedical treatment are with alternative practitioners. Patients' disclosure is often cautiously modulated, even by those who would welcome an open discussion with their physicians. Specific suggestions for discussing CAM use with patients are presented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Communication
  • Complementary Therapies* / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Office Visits
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • San Francisco
  • Truth Disclosure*