Rise of Alternative Medical Practitioners in Canada Could be Beneficial for Primary Care Providers

Aug 14, 2017

A new study reveals a recent rise in patients seeking treatment among alternative health providers which Dr. Rick Glazier, Professor at the University of Toronto Department of Family Community Medicine (DFCM), describes as an interesting phenomenon. Dr. Rick GlazierDr. Rick Glazier

Dr. Glazier was a member of the thesis committee that oversaw the development of the study titled “Changes in the Use of Practitioner-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Over Time in Canada: Cohort and Period Effects.” In it, researchers sought to determine whether visits to alternative medical practitioners had risen in the last two decades. Using data from the last 16 years from the Canadian National Population Health Survey, the researchers targeted ten Canadian provinces.

The study observed the increase in the use of different types of healthcare services outside of the traditional realm which includes: Massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, homoeopathy and naturopathy. The use of acupuncture and homoeopathy has grown over time, but chiropractic use has not changed. New providers have emerged in the realm of naturopathy, acupuncture and massage therapy which would explain their growing popularity. Dr. Glazier points to the rise of chronic and pain-affecting conditions as strong predictors of the rise of alternative medicine.

“A growing consumer-healthcare movement has encouraged individuals to take proactive steps in taking care of themselves,” says Dr. Glazier, “Those observed in the study did make use of conventional medicine and regularly consulted with their primary care physicians and specialists but had higher odds of meeting with alternative health care providers.”

Alternative medicine has been aptly associated with the use of non-regulated medication sold in stores but its actual definition also expands to practices like acupuncture, massage therapy and naturopathy. Dr. Glazier is not quick to dismiss the consequences of undergoing those types of treatments but does tread lightly with alternative medicine’s benefits.

“It’s not good or bad. Alternative medicine’s popularity is an alternative to standard western medicine. For many health conditions, like chronic diseases, we have many remedies and ways to take care of patients but there’s a limit to what we can do when people have exhausted the mainstream approaches. If someone gets a massage for lower back pain, I don’t know how a family physician would object to that. The alternative could be opioids.”

In his clinic, Dr. Glazier has seen first-hand the benefits of alternative medical practitioners. Some patients often suffer from a painful chronic disease for which there is no new or safe drug to prescribe.  One of his patients had seen a naturopath that had focused predominantly on the psychological distress of the patient’s condition rather than her disease state. After several visits to the naturopath, she was feeling much better. On the one hand, Dr. Glazier states that while these providers have a weaker evidence base, they often operate on a personal rather than medical basis.

“As physicians, we are more worried about people who are living with aggressive illnesses and seek expensive supplements, harmful treatments or just choose to delay treatment. When it comes to alternative medicine, I have heard all kind of stories from both sides. Ultimately, physicians need to encourage their patients to discuss any treatment method as part of their care plan.”

 

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