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Complementary and Alternative Medicine E-Mail
. Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Finding a Doctor Who Understands Complementary And Alternative Medicine

By Miriam Wetzel, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School

The use of complementary and alternative therapies has skyrocketed. Magazines, TV, bookstores and the Internet are now filled with information about herbal remedies, vitamins, dietary supplements, massage, relaxation techniques and more. One result: More and more people want medical care from a doctor who understands complementary and alternative medicine.

You may seek out such a doctor for a number of reasons. For example, you may:

  • Want to explore complementary and alternative medicine under a doctor's guidance.
  • Want care from a doctor who is open-minded about including complementary and alternative therapies in your care.
  • Already be familiar with complementary and alternative medicine but want to discuss your options with a doctor trained in conventional medicine.
  • Already be receiving care from a complementary and alternative medicine practitioner and want to discuss your therapy with a doctor.

Whatever your goals, you will benefit most from a doctor who neither condemns complementary and alternative medicine wholesale, nor blindly advocates it.

Finding a doctor who understands complementary and alternative medicine is becoming easier. In the past, medical schools ignored complementary and alternative medicine. Today, more medical students are at least introduced to the topic. In 2000, 82 medical schools taught complementary and alternative topics, according a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In addition, many practicing doctors now study common alternative therapies.

Getting Started

If you can, search for a doctor before you need one. A few years ago, all you could do was ask neighbors, relatives, and friends for a recommendation. Now, you can use the Internet. For example, the Web site for the American Medical Association Free Physician Select Service has information about a doctor's location, gender, medical school, year of graduation, residency training, board certification, and specialty. Local, state, and specialty medical societies also can give you information about practitioners in your area. These societies usually can be found in the telephone book, in the business section or under social and human services. Keep in mind that, if you belong to a managed-care organization such as an HM0, your selection may be limited to participating doctors. The managed-care organization should provide a list of participating doctors to guide your search.

Factors To Consider

Here are factors to consider in selecting a doctor:

  • Board certification—To help determine the quality of your doctor's training, find out whether he or she is board certified. Doctors who are board certified have met specific requirements for advanced training. If a doctor cares for adults, he or she may be board certified in internal medicine or family medicine. If the doctor cares for children, he or she may be certified in pediatrics or family medicine. You can get more information about board certification by clicking here.
  • Hospital affiliation—Find out which hospital your doctor uses. How easy is it to get to that hospital in an emergency? Have you or anyone you know received care at that hospital? If so, how was that experience?
  • Associated health professionals—Today, most doctors are part of a group or team practice. What other health professionals are on staff? Physician's assistants, nurse practitioners, midwives, nutritionists, and physical therapists may be part of the practice. Find out if any complementary and alternative practitioners, such as acupuncturists, or massage therapists, also belong to the group.

Look To Community Resources

Seek out organizations in your community for people interested in complementary and alternative therapy. Look for yoga classes, women's health groups, or local chapters of national organizations that support alternative health, such as the American Holistic Medical Association and the American College For the Advancement of Medicine. Take a class or attend a meeting. Ask the people you meet about local doctors who provide the therapies that interest you.

Narrowing Your Choice

Once you have located a doctor, check out his or her practice. You can contact a doctor by telephone, in person, or online, if the doctor has a Web site. The staff at the doctor's office may be able to tell you about the type of practice, the doctor's hospital affiliation, and whether any alternative health practitioners are associated with the practice. However, the staff may not have time to answer all your questions.

Next, check out the doctor's attitude toward complementary and alternative medicine. Talk to the doctor on the phone for five or 10 minutes. Have your questions ready and make notes. Pay attention to the quality of your discussion. Does it inspire your confidence? Consider whether you prefer a doctor who will take charge of your care, or one who will give you information and include you in making decisions.

Next, consider arranging an interview. Some doctors allow a 10- or 15-minute initial visit at no charge, but others don't. Instead, you may want to schedule a routine visit. During your visit, ask the doctor if he or she is familiar with complementary and alternative therapies and willing to work with local complementary and alternative practitioners.

You may have to pay for several appointments before you find the right doctor. However, the extra effort will help find a doctor to guide you through the maze of complementary and alternative therapies.

Last updated August 03, 2001

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