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From OncoLog, February 2013, Vol. 58, No. 2

Finding Information About Alternative Medicine
How to choose credible sources and avoid pitfalls

Graphic: House CallMany people are exploring natural or alternative medicine. Often they do so without consulting a physician, instead relying on the Internet for information. But many Web sites selling so-called healing products make unproven or false claims. Here, we share some trustworthy sources of information and tips to help you spot unreliable Web sites.

Dependable sources

Your doctor and his or her staff are valuable information sources because they are familiar with your health conditions and history. Don’t be nervous that your doctor will scoff if you ask about acupuncture, massage therapy, homeopathy, naturopathy, or herbal products; physicians, like the rest of us, are learning that some of these products and practices are helpful. In fact, many health care professionals use the term “complementary and integrative medicine” (CIM) instead of “alternative medicine” to emphasize the idea that these holistic treatments should be used in coordination with conventional medicine.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program offers general information about CIM and specific information about its role in cancer treatment. The program also hosts educational programs for physicians, patients, and the general public. The U.S. National Institutes of Health operates several Web sites with useful information about CIM. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has information on a wide range of topics. For cancer-specific information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Reliable information about herbal products and nutritional supplements is available from the Office of Dietary Supplements.

Accurate information about herbal medicine is also available through nonprofit groups such as the American Botanical Council and the United States Pharmacopeial Convention.

Professional organizations for CIM practitioners can help you find qualified practitioners in your area. Examples include the American Holistic Medical Association, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and the American Institute of Homeopathy.

Warning signs

Web sites operated by private companies should be viewed with caution. Some CIM companies offer high-quality products with proven benefits, but others sell products that are unproven or potentially harmful. Other companies may honestly believe in their product’s benefits but have no scientific proof to confirm these beliefs. Some signs of questionable CIM Web sites are:

  • Testimonials. Comments from users who say the product worked are not proof of a product’s effectiveness. Consumers should be concerned if such testimonials are the only evidence offered. Clinical trials provide the most reliable form of proof.
  • Advertising a cure for a specific condition. Although false advertising is illegal, some companies break the law, and others use misleading language and disclaimers. Unless a product is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat a specific condition, the product’s effectiveness probably has not been proven in clinical trials.
  • Secret ingredients. Fraudulent sites often claim their products are the result of ancient remedies, secret recipes, miracle cures, or medical breakthroughs.
  • User fees. Most legitimate sites will not charge users a fee to access health-related information, although some medical journals and consumer publications require a subscription.
  • Hard-sell tactics. Limited-time offers and money-back guarantees are designed to encourage consumers to buy quickly instead of doing further research.

Other considerations

When viewing any Web site with CIM information, you may find it useful to ask the following questions:

  • Who runs this site? Credible Web sites should have an “About Us” page that describes the organization and includes contact information.
  • Where does the information come from? Medical statements should have references to original articles in medical journals.
  • How current is the information? The articles or pages should indicate when they were last updated. If not, assume the copyright date at the bottom of the page to be the most recent date the content may have been reviewed.

These guidelines can help you avoid misleading information and dangerous products, but even a useful CIM product might not be for everyone. For example, a therapeutic massage might help someone with a strained muscle but hurt someone who has a medical device or implant. Herbal supplements may interact with prescription drugs. Your physician can help you make safe choices about CIM products and services.

– B. Tutt

For more information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org/cimer, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.

Other articles in OncoLog, February 2013 issue:

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