City of Hope surgical oncologist Lily Lai, M.D., knows that patients often use therapies beyond the medications she recommends on her prescription pad.
Medicinal herbs. Yoga. Acupuncture. Steaming infusions and botanical elixirs. Elements of complementary and alternative medicine continue to abound in society as people seek whole-body healing and well-being. But what do physicians, physical therapists, nurses and other health-care professionals think about these options — and what do they need to learn to help their patients use them more healthfully?
That is what Lai and her colleagues want to find out.
As part of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at City of Hope, Lai leads an effort to survey City of Hope health-care professionals and researchers about their attitudes, knowledge and practice within the realm of complementary and alternative medicine. Biller Resource Center researchers hope to use their findings to integrate and improve care among their own patients — and increase awareness about the topic outside their walls through published research, as well.
“As it turns out, somewhere around 70 or even 80 percent of all patients are already using complementary treatments,” said Lai, assistant professor of surgery and specialist in colorectal cancers. “In a cancer center, particularly, where many patients are using them, we really need to identify and understand them.”
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), complementary and alternative medicine includes a variety of health-related systems, practices and products considered outside of today’s conventional medicine. Examples might include traditional Chinese medicine, music therapy, exercise, homeopathy and Ayurveda, as well as supplements, certain foods and mind-body therapies such as meditation.
The area has grown so rapidly that the NIH created its own entity to study it: the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Lai and her colleagues designed their survey to gauge knowledge and interest among health-care professionals and researchers across City of Hope within specific areas of complementary and alternative medicine. They also will touch on cultural issues, and will ask whether respondents are interested in learning more.
It is about more than just increasing general knowledge. “Sometimes herbal supplements may be contraindicated with chemotherapy,” Lai said. In one example, the popular herb St. John’s Wort was found to interfere with how the liver breaks down several conventional drugs — lowering the drugs’ effectiveness.
But gathering key information from patients about their use of these therapies means that health-care professionals must be comfortable enough to inquire about them.
“Patients won’t really tell you everything they’re doing unless you ask,” Lai said.
Biller Resource Center researchers will analyze survey data to determine participants’ attitudes and plan education topics to address areas of interest and deficiency. The survey also will help direct research into the integration of complementary treatments with conventional medicine.
“This will drive our educational and research agenda,” Lai said. “Research topics could be as simple as looking at the value of exercise after colon cancer diagnosis, or perhaps the usefulness of hypnosis during invasive procedures, for example.”
Researchers also will survey patients and families.
“Ensuring patient safety is our first order of business,” Lai said. “With the documented high usage of complementary treatments in patients with cancer, we’d be better off integrating it rather than ignoring it.”