Complementary Health Approaches
Be an Informed Consumer
Take charge of your health by being an informed consumer.
Talk with your health care providers when making any decisions about using complementary health approaches. Your health care providers can give you advice based on your medical needs.
Learn the Facts
If you are thinking about using a complementary health approach, learn the facts. Is it safe? Does it work?
Find out what scientific studies have been done. (For tips on how to do this, see Where To Find Reliable Information.) It’s not a good idea to use a complementary approach simply because people have told you it worked for them or because you have seen it inan advertisement or on a Web site. Remember that for some complementary health approaches, there may not be much scientific information available on safety or effectiveness.
Complementary Health Information on the Internet
The number of Web sites offering health-related resources grows every day. Some sites provide valuable information, but others may have information that is unreliable or misleading. To evaluate the quality of a Web site, try to answer these questions about it.
- Who runs it? If this isn’t obvious, look for a link to an “About This Site” page.
- What is the site’s purpose? Is it there to sell products? Does it promote a specific viewpoint? The “About This Site” page will usually give you this information.
- What is the source of the information? Many health sites post information collected from other Web sites or sources. If the organization in charge of the site did not create the material, the original source should be clearly identified.
- What is the basis of the information? Look for references to scientific research that support what the Web page says. Keep in mind that personal stories and opinions are not the same as objective scientific information.
- Is the information reviewed? You can be more confident in the quality of medical information on a Web site if qualified people review it before it is posted. If experts have reviewed the information, their names will usually be mentioned on the Web page.
- Is the information up to date? Some Web sites are updated regularly, but others aren’t. Outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Many Web pages include a date when the information was last reviewed. Look for it near the top or bottom of the page.
How To Find Reliable Information
Your health care providers and your pharmacist are good resources for learning about complementary health approaches. You can ask them about safety, effectiveness, and possible interactions with medications, and they can help you understand scientific reports.
Rather than searching the Internet, it’s often easier to find reliable health information online by visiting U.S. Government health Web sites where all of the information has been checked to make sure it’s accurate. Links to several useful Web sites are given below, along with other suggestions on where to find reliable information.
Federal Sources of Information
The NCCAM Clearinghouse, run by NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a good source of information.
The information specialists at the Clearinghouse can respond to inquiries in English and Spanish, send you publications on complementary health approaches, and search Federal databases of scientific and medical literature for you. However, they cannot provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
You can reach the Clearinghouse in three ways:
- By phone. Call 1-888-644-6226 (toll-free in the U.S.). Deaf or hard-of-hearing callers can call the TTY number, 1-866-464-3615. Both numbers are answered from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.
- By e-mail. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- By postal mail. Write to NCCAM Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898.
These Web sites offer high-quality, up-to-date health information on complementary health approaches.
- NCCAM’s Web site
- NCCAM’s collection of links to other organizations
- NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements Web site
For information on a wider variety of health topics, visit
- NIHSeniorHealth.gov, which provides information about health and wellness for older adults
- MedlinePlus.gov, a collection of resources maintained by NIH’s National Library of Medicine
- Healthfinder.gov, a collection of resources maintained by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Learn About the Different Types of Products on the Shelf
Over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, and homeopathic remedies may all be shelved together in supermarkets, pharmacies, or other stores.
Dietary supplements contain a variety of ingredients, which are listed on a product’s Supplement Facts panel. To use dietary supplements safely, read and follow the label instructions. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist about the safety and effectiveness of the supplements and their possible interactions with medications.
The regulations for dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies are less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs, so it’s more difficult to be sure whether they are safe and helpful.
Many homeopathic remedies are highly diluted. They contain so little of their active ingredient that it is unlikely they could cause any harm. However, some products labeled as homeopathic contain substantial amounts of active ingredients and therefore could have side effects. If you’re considering using a homeopathic product, talk with your health care provider.
Selecting a Complementary Health Practitioner
If you’re looking for a complementary health practitioner, such as a chiropractor or acupuncturist, to help treat a medical problem, it’s important to be as careful and thorough in your search as you are when looking for conventional medical care.
If you need names of practitioners in your area, you may want to contact one of the following sources.
- your doctor or other health care provider
- a nearby hospital or medical school
- a professional organization for the type of practitioner you want to see. (You can find these organizations through the National Library of Medicine’s Directory of Health Organizations or a local library.)
- regulatory agencies or licensing boards in your state
- your health insurance provider.
Find out as much as you can about the practitioner, including education, training, licensing, and certifications. Also, find out whether the practitioner is willing to work together with your conventional health care providers. For safe, coordinated care, it’s important for all of the professionals involved in your health to communicate and cooperate. Explain all of your health conditions to the practitioner, and find out about the practitioner’s training and experience in working with people who have your medical issues. Also, tell your other health care providers about any complementary health practitioners you are seeing.
Don’t assume that your health insurance will cover the practitioner’s services. It’s best to contact your health insurance provider and ask. Insurance plans differ greatly in what complementary health approaches they cover, and even if they cover a particular approach, restrictions may apply.
For More Information
The NCCAM Web site has a collection of resources on being an informed consumer. You can learn more about how to evaluate health information on the Internet from resources provided by NCCAM and MedlinePlus.