News Release

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Older Americans Not Discussing Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use with Doctors

In spite of the high use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) among people age 50 or older, 69 percent of those who use CAM do not talk to their doctors about it, according to a new survey conducted by AARP and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health. The survey examined conversations between patients and their physicians regarding CAM use.

CAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. It includes such products and practices as herbal supplements, meditation, homeopathy, and acupuncture.

“We know that people 50 and older tend to be high users of complementary and alternative medicine, but this study was the first to explore gaps in communications regarding the use of CAM between patients and their physicians,” said Cheryl Matheis, AARP Director of Health Strategies. “Communication is important to ensure the wise use of all conventional and CAM therapies.”

Differences in communication practices across demographic groups were also found. Women were more likely than men to have discussed CAM use (26 percent versus 16 percent) and what types of therapies to use (70 percent versus 51 percent). In addition, people with incomes of $75,000 or more (31 percent) or $25,000 to $49,999 (25 percent) frequently discussed CAM use with doctors.

“An open dialogue between consumers and their physicians is critical to ensuring safe and appropriate integrated care,” said Margaret A. Chesney, Ph.D., NCCAM’s Deputy Director. “As the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on CAM, NCCAM is especially committed to educating both consumers and health care providers about the importance of discussing the use of CAM and providing evidence-based information to help with health care decision-making.”

This telephone survey, administered to a nationally representative group of 1,559 people age 50 or older, revealed some reasons why doctor-patient dialogue is lacking. Respondents most often did not discuss their CAM use with doctors because the physicians never asked (42 percent); they did not know that they should (30 percent); or there was not enough time during the office visit (19 percent). Interestingly, men who had seen a doctor were more likely than women not to have discussed CAM because their doctors never asked (46 percent versus 38 percent).

Other highlights from the survey report include:

Dialogue Topics

Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medication Use

  • The topics most often discussed with doctors were the effectiveness of a CAM therapy (67 percent); what to use (64 percent); how a CAM therapy might interact with other medications or treatments received (60 percent); advice on whether to pursue a CAM therapy (60 percent); and safety of a CAM therapy (57 percent).
  • Nearly three-fourths of respondents said they take one or more prescription medications; in addition, 59 percent of respondents said they take one or more over-the-counter medications. Twenty percent of respondents reported taking more than five prescription medications.
  • The high number of prescription and over-the-counter medications used by this group underscores the need for consumers and physicians to discuss all therapies, including CAM, to ensure safe, integrated care.

For a complete copy of the survey report, please visit

Tips for Discussing CAM with Your Doctor:

  • If you are considering a CAM therapy, ask your physician about its safety, effectiveness, and possible interactions with medications (prescription and non-prescription).
  • Tell your doctor about all therapies or treatments including over-the-counter and prescription medicines as well as herbal and dietary supplements.
  • When completing patient history forms, be sure to include all therapies and treatments you use. Make a list in advance.

CAM Resources:

Medline Plus – Alternative Medicine:
Medline Plus – Herbs and Supplements:
NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: 
NCI Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine:
NIA Age Page on Dietary Supplements:

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s mission is to explore complementary and alternative medical practices in the context of rigorous science, train CAM researchers, and disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCAM’s Clearinghouse toll free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit

AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization that helps people 50+ have independence, choice and control in ways that are beneficial and affordable to them and society as a whole. We produce AARP The Magazine, published bimonthly; AARP Bulletin, our monthly newspaper; AARP Segunda Juventud, our bimonthly magazine in Spanish and English; NRTA Live & Learn, our quarterly newsletter for 50+ educators; and our website, AARP Foundation is an affiliated charity that provides security, protection, and empowerment to older persons in need with support from thousands of volunteers, donors, and sponsors. We have staffed offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

NIH…Turning Discovery Into Health®