In recent years, the use of alternative medicine has become more acknowledged in the United States. Many different practices are encompassed by the terms alternative, unorthodox, or complementary medicine, and their use by the population is just now being defined. The number of established family practice patients also using alternative medicine is not yet known. To help answer this question, a survey of family practice patients concerning their use of alternative medicine was performed in 4 family practices in a large community in the western United States. Volunteers from the survey respondents attended a focus group to discuss more fully their use of alternative medicine. Questionnaires were completed by 113 family practice patients. Fifty percent (57/113) of patients had or were using some form of alternative medicine, but only 53% (30/57) had told their family physician about this use. No significant difference in the percentage who used alternative medicine or who told their physician about it was attributable to gender, educational level, age, race, or clinic attended. The main reason given for using alternative medicine, alone or in combination with care from a family physician, was a belief that it would work. Many of those who worked in combination with a family physician spoke of acceptance and control, but those who did not work with their physician mentioned traditional medicine's limitations and narrow-mindedness. Family physicians need to be aware that many of their patients may be using alternative health care. Open and nonjudgmental questioning of patients may help increase physician knowledge of this use and lead to improved patient care as physicians and patients work together toward health.
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