What Nurses Need to Know About Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal remedies: these alternative therapies for illness and health issues continue to grow in popularity. According to the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of the National Institute for Health), four out of ten Americans will use some form of alternative medicine in the coming year. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of people worldwide use herbal medicines and other alternative therapies to combat illness. There is no doubt that Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is here to stay, and if you are considering becoming a nurse, you’ll want to know about the various therapies.

Nursing programs and nursing schools have recognized this trend and are changing their curriculum to acknowledge CAM. Even accelerated nursing programs now offer some courses. Some top nursing programs also offer training in the field. If you are considering nursing school, here is more information about CAM to help you better evaluate the curriculum of your chosen nursing program.

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?

Long before doctors and hospitals, there were individuals who practiced medical treatment with what they had at hand: plants, spices, prayers, and hope. Over the last twenty years or so, people have been re-examining some of these early medical treatments and integrating them into current treatments plans.

Much of alternative medicine has its roots in specific cultures, such as Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine. Herbs are now distilled down to concentrated formulas in pills or liquid form, and homeopathic medicine (which claims to work very much like vaccinations) has become commonplace.  According to the “Coumadin Medical Dictionary,” CAM is any “Practices not generally recognized by the medical community as standard or conventional medical approaches and used instead of standard treatments.”

Why Nurses Need to Be Aware of CAM

In these days of HMOs and managed care, it is often the nurse who spends the most time with patients, taking down histories and vetting complaints. Often, nurses are responsible for tracking a patient’s response to medications, noting effectiveness and adverse reactions. Nurses need to know if a patient is taking any herbal medication, because certain herbs can interfere with standard medications. For instance, garlic (taken for the heart) and ginko (taken to improve memory) can increase the effect of some blood thinners, while goldenseal (often taken to treat colds) can decrease the effectiveness. A nurse may also need to ask the surprised woman who finds herself pregnant while taking birth control pills if she has also been taking St. John’s Wort, an herb commonly used to fight the winter blues, and one that can also render birth control pills ineffective.

Because herbs are unregulated (the FDA treats them as a food supplement) there are no standard dosages or other information available to unwary consumers. Sold in drug stores, grocery stores, and health food chains, these products are easily accessible and can be taken entirely without medical supervision.

CAM Goes Mainstream

From zinc cough drops to fight off the common cold to taking extra vitamin C when feeling under the weather, CAM has become common in many households.  Some individuals committed to alternative medicine avoid standard medical treatment, including refusing basics like antibiotics and vaccines.

Traditional medicine is not ignoring this trend, although it was slow to embrace it. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine  (NCCAM) has funded research studies at such medical centers as Tufts and Princeton University. Allied health professionals working with cancer patients, Aids patients, and geriatric patients have begun to utilize elements of CAM in standard treatments.

How Nurses Can Become Educated About CAM

While nurses can certainly utilize tools such as the evidence-based research at the NCAAM website or the FDA’s website, it would be wise for practicing nurses to take advantage of continuing education courses about complementary and alternative medicine. Nursing schools have noted this trend and offer courses that provide a solid base in information about CAM. If you are currently researching nursing schools, be sure to choose one that offers courses about alternative medicine; this trend is here to stay.