Living with multiple medicines: Taking complementary medicines

Listen to patients and health professionals talk about living with multiple prescription and complementary medicines.

Complementary medicines include: natural and herbal medicines; alternative, traditional or holistic remedies; homeopathy; aromatherapy oils; and vitamins and minerals (which can also be part of medical treatment).

Many people we spoke to believe in a holistic approach to healthcare, with most using some complementary medicines along with their prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Some people rely heavily on complementary medicines, while some would prefer to use more ‘natural’ methods than the numerous prescription medicines they are currently taking. Other people do not believe in complementary medicines and do not take them.


Different views regarding complementary medicines

Micaela appreciates that her current ophthalmologist has taken a more holistic approach to her healthcare, which is very different from the approach she often encounters with other specialists.

Brian’s wife encourages him to take fish oil. He is thinking about taking more complementary medicines, as they seemed to do his mother a lot of good.

Don does not believe in complementary medicines, but he has family members and colleagues who would like him to try them. He has found a way to politely decline that people seem to accept.


Consistency with beliefs and values

A number of people who take complementary medicines do so because they align with their beliefs about health and also other areas of life. There is a strong cultural component for some people, particularly if they were raised in a household where complementary medicines were supported, or if they come from a country where complementary medicines are considered mainstream treatment.

Sue found a GP who takes a holistic approach to healthcare, which aligns with her beliefs. It annoys her when people do not respect her position and tell her she is wasting her time and money on complementary medicines.

PT comes from India, which has a strong tradition of complementary medicines. He believes that the cause of his heart condition is implicated in what he lost when he immigrated to Australia five years ago.


The expense of complementary medicines

Complementary medicines are often expensive, particularly if people are taking a number of them. People who consider them to be ‘truly complementary’ to their primary regimen of prescription medicines often stop their complementary medicines temporarily if they cannot afford all of their medicines.

Micaela can feel the negative impact when she stops her complementary medicines, but she sometimes has no choice because of their high cost.

Sue finds the cost of her complementary medicines expensive. As her health is a priority for her and complementary medicines are a major part of that, she prioritises them and goes without other things.

Complementary medicines are also the medicines that people consider giving up when they feel that they are taking too many. This is particularly the case if they are also affected by their expense and have doubts about their effectiveness.

Helen stopped taking vitamins once the number of other medicines she needed to take increased. She also found a single-dose complementary medicine that reduced the high number of fish oil supplements she was taking.


The effort of taking complementary medicines

Another disadvantage of complementary medicines is the amount of work that can be involved, particularly for those who are taking a high number of them. They cannot be included in Webster-paks or dosette boxes and often do not fit into pill boxes. People need to manage taking their complementary medicines themselves if they are in hospital, whereas other medicines are managed by the hospital staff.

Sue can imagine a time when it will be difficult for her to take her complementary medicines and will need a high level of support to help manage them.


Interactions with other medicines

Many people are aware that complementary medicines can interact with other prescription medicines, although this was not a common experience among the people we spoke to.

Interview only available as text

Emma only takes the complementary medicines her doctors suggest, because many of them trigger her food intolerances.


Evidence of effectiveness

Some people are uncertain whether there is enough evidence that a complementary medicine is working; some feel they have all the evidence they need. Others ‘test’ whether a complementary medicine is working or not by stopping it temporarily and judging the effect.

Some people are generally ambivalent towards complementary medicines, but are willing to take those that are recommended by their doctor; one of the people we spoke to is impressed by Lyprinol, a green mussel extract that her oncologist recommended as a natural anti-inflammatory.

Helen trusts conventional, prescribed medication the most, but is willing to try complementary medicines for herself.

Sue feels that she has the kind of evidence she needs that complementary medicines are working for her.

Karen has ‘tested’ her complementary medicines to see if she really needs them by stopping them temporarily. She has reintroduced some and ceased taking others depending on what she experienced.


Views of health professionals

We also asked health professionals for their perspectives on complementary medicines.

Dr Brendan Beaton, haematologist, says it is important for people to tell their doctors about the complementary medicines they take, because they can interact with other medicines.

Dr Susan Connelly, geriatrician, explains that interactions may be attributed to the wrong medicine if doctors do not know all of the medicines—including complementary medicines—that their patient takes.

Emily Klopper, pharmacist, says that it is important that allied health professionals also know about people’s use of complementary medicines.


What people also talk about


The Living with multiple medicines project was developed in collaboration with

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