From OncoLog, February 2013, Vol. 58,
House Call: Finding Information About Alternative Medicine
How to choose credible sources and avoid pitfalls
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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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
- Where does the information come from? Medical
statements should have references to original articles in medical
- 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
information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org/cimer, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
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