Pharmacists and Patients Navigating Complementary and Integrative Medicine

Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics March 2021
Volume 165
Issue 3

Alternative healing approaches and therapies become increasingly popular among consumers.

complementary and alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has grown steadily over the last decade but surged in popularity in 2020—likely due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.1 According to the results of a survey conducted by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, users cited overall immune support (57%) and health/wellness benefits (53%) as the most common reasons for increasing their supplement intake.1 With many individuals seeking additional ways to stay healthy, pharmacists are ideally positioned to help educate patients on the appropriate use of these products.

Despite the uptick in CAM use, misconceptions abound among health care professionals, including pharmacists. Two integrative pharmacists seek to dispel these myths and offer their colleagues tips to improve their ability to assist their patients in navigating complementary and integrative care.

Common Misconceptions

"The biggest myth about CAM I keep hearing from medical professionals is that CAM and herbal products don't have evidence behind clinical use," said Marina Buksov, PharmD, health coach, nutritionist, and clinical herbalist based in Brooklyn, New York. "I think because of the lack of education, health care professionals and patients alike are wary of herbal medicine, and there's a general consensus that it's potentially dangerous to use—guilty until proven innocent."

For Hossein Ejtemai, RPh, owner of Brookville Pharmacy and Wellness Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the misconceptions surrounding CIM seem to be demographic- and geographic-based.

"People often think there's a [cultural] gap with CAM because people from overseas—especially from the Asian culture—are more likely to use supplements, natural products, and natural remedies," he said. "The younger generation in this country is also changing to CAM because of access to information [via the internet].”

Pharmacists Offer Key Counseling Points for CAM

To optimize their patients' experience with CAM, Ejtemai said pharmacists should seek training.

"Health care professionals are [generally] aware of CAM but most medical professionals, including pharmacists, lack sufficient training in CAM,” he said. "The 3 credits you get in pharmacy school is not enough to assist your patients."

Pharmacists looking to expand their knowledge can choose from numerous certifications, many that are available online and take 6 to 18 months to complete. "Get certified to better educate your patients," Ejtemai said. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Duke University, and The George Washington University are among the institutions that offer programs.

After developing their CAM skills, pharmacists should keep several key concepts front of mind when counseling patients on CAM. Most importantly, pharmacists should take the time to ensure patients understand when and how to use these products.

"Natural products have a place in both Eastern and Western medicine, but you have to keep in mind that natural products are generally better for prevention than treatment," Ejtemai explained. "You cannot treat a disease with natural products in the late stages."

Ensure patients understand that, unlike many conventional medicines that often show results in a few days or weeks, natural products can take several weeks to months to work.

Below are more recommendations for pharmacists seeking to educate their patients on CAM use.

  • Use trustworthy sources to conduct your research.

"It's important to look to reputable resources on topics that we don't have enough education on," Buksov said. She recommends Lexicomp, the Natural Medicines database, and About Herbs by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

  • Educate patients taking nutrient-depleting medications on the importance of supplementation.

For example, Ejtemai recommended counseling patients taking metformin on the importance of vitamin B12supplementation to potentially ward off diabetic neuropathy.

  • Consult with a practitioner, educator, or researcher who is an expert in the topic about which you are seeking information.

Conventional medicine has exchanged peer reviews for evidence-based medicine, but the sometimes nebulous nature of CAM sometimes warrants peer consultations.


  1. Dietary supplement usage up dramatically during pandemic, new Ipsos-CRN survey shows. News release. Council for Responsible Nutrition. August 20, 2020. Accessed February 6, 2021.

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