Who uses complementary and alternative medicines? Well, in short – most Canadians. There are many misconceptions about who uses complementary and alternative medicine, which are often based on biased stereotypes and can lead people to dismiss complementary and alternative medicine and not take the issues surrounding access and availability seriously. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is any medical system, product or practice developed outside mainstream Western medicine. They are typically rooted in different philosophies and standards of evidence than mainstream medicine. Practices include homeopathy, naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, massage, and yoga, and products include herbal remedies, vitamins, and other natural health products. Complementary medicine refers to the use of such practices and products in conjunction with mainstream medicine, whereas alternative medicine means using them instead of mainstream Western medicine.

So who uses complementary and alternative medicine? Not just a radical, “science-denying” few… Over 5 million Canadians report using some product or practice that is considered CAM. 76% of Canadians have purchased natural health products such as vitamins and herbal products, and about 70% use them weekly. That means many who scoff at “alternative medicine” have probably purchased and used CAM products! Canadians of all walks of life, backgrounds, and beliefs use and benefit from CAM in numerous and varied ways. CAM is a big business in Canada – about $2.35 billion per year, and Canadians are mostly paying out of pocket for these products and services, demonstrating an active interest and desire to access them.

If the majority of Canadians have used some variety of CAM, then why the stigma and stereotyping of CAM users as naïve and unable to understand their own welfare, or as fringe “hippies” who simply don’t understand science? Fear of the potential of these products and practices? Perhaps to enforce conformity to Western medical practice, and thus to drive profits towards the pharmaceutical industry? Regardless of the reasons behind mainstream suspicion of CAM, regular Canadians are evidently open to it, and are already using various complementary and alternative products and practices. Many, if not most, users are using natural and non-Western medicine as complementary medicine, alongside mainstream medicine, and yet stigma and lack of acceptance continues – with potentially dangerous outcomes. Sometimes patients are afraid to tell doctors about natural health products that they use for fear of judgement, lecturing, and withholding of treatment. Just as prescription pharmaceuticals can have dangerous interactions if taken in the wrong combination, NHPs can have harmful interactions with certain prescription medicines. For example, certain herbs and vitamins have been found to negatively interact with chemotherapy in 25% of patients. Doctors need to be open and non-judgemental in conversation with patients about NHPs in order to ensure honest communication, and should work with their patients to devise complete treatment plans which accommodate patients’ chosen complementary medicine and ensure safety.