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Alternative Medicines Rated in Consumer Reports Survey
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Supplements Not Getting Fair Shake?

Consumer Reports last asked its readers about alternative medicines in 1999. Since then, there's been a big change in doctors' attitudes.

"In 1999, doctors were just starting to accept alternative medicines as a valid way of treating people," Ware says. "Medical doctors are becoming increasingly likely to accept it, and patients are more likely to tell their doctors they are using it."

Doctors often complain that patients don't tell them about supplements they are taking. But 75% of Consumer Reports readers said they'd talked with their doctors about supplement use.

Even more impressively, one in four readers said their doctors suggested a supplement in the first place.

So why did the consumers rank supplements so low? Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents the supplement industry.

"Throughout the article, they put these herbal products up against drugs, and that is unfair," Mister tells WebMD. "This is comparing apples to oranges. It supports this erroneous idea that supplements should be viewed exactly the same as prescription medicines. To reinforce these false expectations of what supplements can and should do is a disservice to the industry."

Taking Herbal Remedies Right

Nutritionist Andrew Shao, PhD, CRN, vice president of science and regulatory affairs, says supplements work less like drugs than like diet.

"The classic example is glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis -- while they are very effective, they don't work the same way as drugs," Shao says. "It takes weeks or months, whereas an over-the-counter painkiller works in minutes or hours."

The problem is that herbal remedies should be prescribed by experts, not purchased like over-the-counter drugs, says Janine Blackman, MD, PhD. Blackman is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore.

"For example, the idea of using chondroitin/glucosamine alone for arthritis is a Western approach," Blackman tells WebMD. "This is totally different from how these herbs should be used. An herbalist would examine a patient and write an individualized prescription for that person.

Blackman says that herbal remedies are important but must be part of a holistic approach. Her team combines the talents of a Chinese herbalist with those of a medical doctor and a psychologist.

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