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Alternative medicine: How to choose

Today, patients have greater access to alternative treatments than ever before. Surveys of hospitals and medical practices have found that more and more are either hiring practitioners of complementary medicine or making referrals.

Your first move is to decide, preferably with your doctor, whether your general health or specific condition warrants the use of conventional care, an alternative treatment, or a mix. All of the conditions we examined have a conventional treatment that helps at least some of the time, and our readers appeared to recognize that. Overall, only four percent said they relied exclusively on alternative treatments for chronic conditions.

If you'd like to use an alternative:

Ask your doctor about it. Many doctors will refer patients to preferred alternative practitioners. More important, your doctor may be able to steer you away from potentially hazardous alternative treatments. For instance, some herbal supplements, such as St. John's wort and ginkgo biloba, can interact hazardously with many prescription medications.

Do your own research. The problem, as with all research on health care, is knowing which information is trustworthy. Objective online references include the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (nccam.nih.gov), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health; Medline Plus (medlineplus.gov), for plain-language medical information; and Consumer Reports Medical Guide (ConsumerReportsMedicalGuide.org), which rates treatments, including alternative treatments, for several dozen common conditions. It costs $24 per year or $4.95 per month; the others are free.

Consult other reliable sources. If your doctor doesn't have a referral list of practitioners, check with a local hospital or medical school. Some maintain lists of recommended practitioners. You can also turn to national professional organizations, many of which have geographic search functions on their Web sites. Prominent groups include:

• American Massage Therapy Association (www.amtamassage.org),

• National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (www.ncbtmb.com),

• American Chiropractic Association (www.amerchiro.org),

• American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (www.medicalacupuncture.org),

• National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (www.nccaom.org).

Check your health plan. Many cover some alternative therapies, typically chiropractic and acupuncture.

Check the practitioner's credentials. All states license chiropractors, 41 license acupuncturists, and 35 regulate massage therapists. Make sure your practitioner has the proper license, if applicable, or check for membership in the associations listed above, all of which require minimum levels of education and experience. Some also make practitioners pass an exam.

Read our complete report and related information on alternative medicine (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers).

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