Purpose: To study the perceptions and attitudes of primary care physicians concerning their patients' use of complementary medicine.
Methods: A questionnaire was distributed to all 165 primary care physicians attending a routine continuing-medicine education program. Items included physicians' estimated rates of patient utilization of complementary medicine or herbal remedies and of patient reportage of such use; physicians' knowledge about side effects and interactions of herbal remedies; and frequency with which physicians questioned their patients on the use of complementary medicine and herbal remedies.
Results: The compliance rate was 90.0% (n=150). Sixty-eight percent of physicians estimated that up to 15% of their patients use complementary medicine; 58% always or often asked their patients about it; 50% estimated that 10% of patients report use of complementary medicine, and 60% estimated the same rate for herbal remedies; 51% believed that herbal remedies have no or only mild side effects; more than 70% claimed that they had little or no knowledge about what herbal remedies are; 24% never referred patients for complementary medicine, and 69% did so occasionally. Twenty-five percent had some training in complementary medicine, and 31% practiced some kind of complementary medicine. Most of the physicians believed that people turn to alternative methods when they are dissatisfied with conventional medicine.
Conclusions: Physicians underestimate the rate of complementary medicine use by patients, suggesting that many patients do not report such use to their physician. Since alternative treatments are potentially harmful and may interact with conventional medications, physicians should be encouraged to communicate with patients about complementary medicine in general and herbal remedies in particular, and they should regularly include questions about their use when taking histories. They should also inform themselves about risks of alternative treatments particularly with herbal remedies, and have access to appropriate information systems.