Hospitals are going alternative. Forty-two percent now offer at least one type of complementary or alternative medicine treatment, according to a recent survey by the American Hospital Association and the Samueli Institute, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on these treatments.
What hospitals choose to offer runs the gamut, from well-known therapies such as acupuncture to less familiar treatments like reiki, in which practitioners channel a patient's energy by placing their hands on or just above specific locations on the body.
Patient demand is the top reason hospitals offer complementary and alternative therapies, cited by 85 percent. Clinical effectiveness? That comes in second, at 70 percent.
Though eager to please, hospitals are generally only willing to go so far. They typically draw the line at herbal or nutritional supplements. Eighty-two percent of hospitals said they don't sell herbs in their hospital pharmacies, and 55 percent don't sell nutritional supplements. Two-thirds said they have policies regarding using such products during a hospital stay.
There's a big difference between guided imagery and ginkgo supplements, say experts. While patients are unlikely to be harmed by the mostly noninvasive therapies hospitals have adopted so far, herbs and supplements may pose a greater threat.
An extract made from the seeds and leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree, for example, is taken by some people to improve memory and fight dementia, despite mostly inconclusive study results.
The herb does, however, increase the risk of bleeding, and patients should discontinue its use 36 hours prior to surgery. "Many herbal remedies create herb/drug interactions," says Barrie Cassileth, chief of the integrative medicine service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which maintains a website with information on 250 herbs and supplements. "Many of them are not standardized, and frequently they are dirty, contaminated and unproven," she says.
That hasn't seemed to bother Americans, who spent $14.8 billion on such products in 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That's an amount equal to one-third of their total out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs. All too often, however, patients don't offer up details to their doctors about what natural remedies they're taking on their own.
These days, hospitals generally ask about such use, but if they don't: Tell them. You could save yourself and the hospital a lot of trouble.