Use of complementary and alternative (CAM) treatment strategies has become a recognized option for many medical and mental conditions.
For chronic illness, CAM is often blended with traditional medical care as people believe the therapies help them better manage their lives.
A new major Nordic research project has scientifically mapped the use of alternative treatment among multiple sclerosis patients.
Researchers from five Nordic countries find that CAM users are often affluent, younger, and more educated than the general population. Also, young women often use CAM as a reflection of lifestyle choices.
As health care costs skyrocket across the world, expanded use of CAM potentially provides a cost-effective option for better care management.
Researchers found that in the case of multiple sclerosis (MS), people use alternative treatments such as dietary supplements, acupuncture and herbal medicine to facilitate their lives with this chronic disease.
“What we see is that patients do not usually use alternative treatments for treating symptoms, but as a preventative and strengthening element,” said Lasse Skovgaard, Ph.D., who has been involved in conducting the questionnaire-based study among 3,800 people with MS in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease which attacks the central nervous system, and which can lead to a loss of mobility and sight. Multiple sclerosis, as any chronic illness, is often accompanied by depression and anxiety.
The incidence of MS is increasing across the world with Denmark experiencing a high prevalence of the disease. Together with researchers from the five other Nordic countries, Skovgaard has spent three years gathering the new data.
“Within the field of health research, it is often a question of studying the extent to which a particular type of drug affects a particular symptom. However, it is equally as important to look at how people with a chronic disease, for example, use different treatments to cope with their situation.
“Here, MS patients offer valuable experience. Their experiences constitute a knowledge bank which we must access and learn from,” he says.
“There is a lot of talk about ‘self-care competence’, in other words patients helping themselves to get their lives to function. Here, many people with a chronic disease find they benefit from using alternative treatments, so we should not ignore this possibility,” said Skovgaard.
Furthermore, learning why patients choose particular treatments is important in relation to improving patient safety because of the possible risks involved in combining conventional and alternative medicine.
According to a 2010 Health and Sickness Study from the Danish National Institute of Public Health (NIPH), one in four Danes say that they have tried one or more types of alternative treatments within the past twelve months.
Among MS patients, the use of alternative medicine has been growing steadily over the past 15 years. In the researchers’ latest study, more than half of the respondents say that they either combine conventional and alternative medicine or only use alternative medicine.
“We cannot ignore the fact that people with chronic disease use alternative treatments to a considerable extent, and that many of them seem to benefit from doing so. It doesn’t help to only judge this from a medical point of view or say that alternative treatments are nonsense – rather, we must try to understand it.”
The study shows that, among MS patients using alternative treatments, there is a significantly bigger proportion of people with a high level of education compared to those who do not use alternative treatments. There is also a larger proportion of highly paid people and of younger women.
“Some critics are of the opinion that when alternative treatments are so popular, it is because they appeal to naïve people looking for a miraculous cure. But our results indicate that it is primarily the well-educated segment that is subscribing to alternative treatments. And that using alternative treatments is part of a lifestyle choice,” said Skovgaard.
He hopes that the new knowledge will improve communication regarding how the chronically ill use alternative treatments in combination with conventional medicine.
“We see that so many people are combining conventional medicine with alternative treatment that it should be taken seriously by the health service. Until now, there hasn’t been much focus on the doctor-patient dialogue in relation to the alternative methods used by the chronically ill to manage their lives,” says Skovgaard.
Additional research will assess how patients perceive the risks associated with using alternative medicine and explore why some patients turn their backs completely on conventional medicine.
Source: University of Copenhagen
Patient consultation photo available from Shutterstock