A growing number of Canadian children with chronic illnesses are being treated with complementary medicine, researchers say, but parents don’t always tell doctors they are using the alternative therapies.
In a survey of parents having their children treated at two Canadian pediatric hospitals, researchers found that alternative medicines and such therapies as massage and chiropractic were commonly used.
At Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, 71 per cent of parents surveyed said they treated their kids with complementary medicine, while 42 per cent of parents attending the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa reported their use.
“Our study found that many, many children use complementary therapies, and unfortunately oftentimes parents do not necessarily disclose this use when they’re talking to their child’s health-care team,” said pediatrician Dr. Sunita Vohra, co-principal author of the study.
The research, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found almost 20 per cent of families surveyed said they had not told their physician or pharmacist about using both prescription and alternative medicines together.
“The reasons for this are probably many and varied,” Vohra said from Edmonton. “Sometimes, parents don’t feel comfortable bringing it up. Sometimes, they’re not sure how that information is going to be received by the health-care team.”
And in other cases, parents may not think the information is relevant because they may not consider a herbal remedy, for instance, a medicine, she said.
The study involved 926 families at 10 clinics in Edmonton and Ottawa, with parents asked to fill out an anonymous questionnaire in the waiting room prior to their child’s appointment.
The most common complementary medicines used were multivitamins or minerals, herbal products and homeopathic remedies, while the most often-used alternative therapies were massage, chiropractic, relaxation and aromatherapy.
Almost half reported using forms of complementary remedies at the same time as being treated by conventional medicine, while about 5 per cent said they used such alternative therapies instead of standard medicine.
The study also found that about 56 per cent of respondents were treating their youngsters with alternative forms of medication at the same time as they were taking prescription drugs.
But such concurrent treatment can be risky: the study found 80 cases of interactions between complementary remedies and traditional drugs, including 19 considered moderately adverse and six that were deemed severe.
“The big thing is if you don’t ask about it, you don’t know to check, right?” King said from Ottawa.
“And if it’s possible that 20 per cent of your patients are coming in and they are on medications and they’re not disclosing this (alternative) treatment . . . on our side as a profession we need to make sure that we’re asking.”
Vohra also cautioned that “more is not necessarily better.”
“We have seen patients that have gotten into trouble if they expose themselves . . . to polypharmacy — the idea of taking many things at the same time,” she said. “Even though the things they’re taking are natural health products, if you’re on a long list of them, I would be careful.
“People make an assumption that natural means safe.”
The study also found that more than 60 per cent of parents reported getting information about complementary medicine from “family.” Others cited the Internet, health food stores, pharmacies, and books and magazines.
“They get their information from a variety of sources, and when you have a commercial interest, when someone is trying to sell you something, you may not actually be getting an unbiased source of advice,” Vohra said.
“So we think it’s useful to try to create an opportunity for dialogue where there isn’t a sales pitch attached to it,” she said, encouraging parents to raise the issue of complementary medicine use with their child’s care providers.
King said the study suggests that families want doctors and other health providers to ask about the use of complementary medicine, and they want a reliable source of information about their potential benefits and harms.