When It Comes to Alternative Treatment, Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Many people with chronic pain will turn to acupuncture, but keep it a secret from their doctors. Yanik Chauvin/Shutterstock

Many people with chronic pain turn to alternative therapies such as acupuncture and chiropractic to try to ease their aches, but some don't tell their primary care doctors, according to a new study.

The findings suggest that better communication is necessary between patients and their doctors to make sure people are getting the best care for their conditions.

For the study, published in the American Journal of Managed Care, researchers surveyed more than 6,000 members of an HMO who had chronic pain conditions. In that group, 47 percent reported using chiropractic, 32 percent reported using acupuncture, and 21 percent reported using both. The researchers were able to access medical records so they could ascertain whether the patients consulted an alternative therapy practitioner in or outside of the network and whether the use of the therapy was noted anywhere in the patients' health records.

The majority of patients told their primary care providers about the alternative therapies. However, many of them (35 percent who had acupuncture and 42 percent who had chiropractic) kept the information from their doctors. But it's not likely that they were trying to keep the alternative use a secret. Interestingly, most of the patients said they would discuss their use of alternative therapies if their doctors had asked about it.

“Our study confirms that most of our patients with chronic pain are seeking complementary treatments to supplement the care we provide in the primary care setting,” said Charles Elder, M.D., MPH, lead author of the study and affiliate investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon. “The problem is that too often, doctors don’t ask about this treatment, and patients don’t volunteer the information.”

Researchers didn't ask patients why they withheld the information from their doctors. Perhaps they didn't think it was important to the rest of their care or they might be afraid their doctor would have a negative view of alternative therapy.

“We want our patients to get better, so we need to ask them about the alternative and complementary approaches they are using," said Elder. "If we know what’s working and what’s not working, we can do a better job advising patients and we may be able to recommend an approach they haven’t tried.”

This video explains the study: