Alternative medicine: Questions to ask

Last updated: Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Most clinical problems involving alternative medicine are concerned with Adverse reactions or Interactions, so follow the links to see the questioning to use in these situations. There are also some general questions to ask when faced with any clinical problem.

However, in addition to investigating the patient's drug history and medical history, there are five broad questions concerned with alternative medicine that you might find helpful in practice:

  • What is the alternative medicine and what ingredients does it contain? Brand names often tell you little, and many products have multiple ingredients. It's helpful to see the original pack so you can read the full list of ingredients and the recommended dose. Some products simply comprise vitamins and minerals within their recommended daily allowance.

  • How long has the patient been taking it? If it was started shortly before the appearance of  a new side effect then maybe the medicine is responsible. However, if an alternative medicine has been taken safely alongside existing conventional medicines for years, then an interaction is unlikely. If the patient has not yet started the alternative medicine there is an opportunity to intervene if it might not be safe.

  • Where did they get it from? Is it a familiar OTC brand bought from a reputable outlet, or a poorly labelled powder sourced from an unfamiliar website? Was it prescribed for them, and if so by whom?

  • Why does the patient want to take it? Has the patient self-diagnosed their medical problem, and would it be helpful for them to see a doctor about it? You may be able to recommend a safer or more evidence-based alternative. Is the patient potentially taking a complementary therapy to treat a side effect from another treatment?

  • Does the patient or healthcare professional have a particular safety concern? For example, are there symptoms that may be a side effect, or uncertainty about an interaction?

Generally, you will often be trying to answer the question: 'What are the potential risks posed to the patient taking into account their past medical history and concomitant medicines?'

The 'questions to ask' from every tutorial on this site have been brought together into a Quick Question Guide that you may want to download for future reference.