Herbal medicines are popular with patients. A recent survey revealed that one third of people in the UK had used herbal medicines and one in four had used one in the last two years.

Herbal medicines

Herbal medicines, which can be bought without a prescription, include St John’s Wort, for depression, and feverfew, for migraine headache. Problems may arise when herbal medicines interact with conventional prescription medications. These interactions may reduce the efficacy of either medicine or may produce unwanted, and even dangerous, side effects. Therefore, it’s important for doctors to know about, and understand, herbal medicines. Unfortunately, a recent survey of doctors and pharmacists, reveals a huge knowledge gap when it comes to herbal medicines.

Respondents were sceptical about herbal medicines, despite their popularity. Seven out of ten think the public faith in herbal medicines is misplaced. And more than 85% believe the public is also ill-informed on the topic. The trouble is, so are the health professionals! Three out of four admitted being ‘poorly informed’ on herbal medicines and half described their understanding as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Seven out of ten said they would take steps to find out more if they knew their patient was taking herbal medicines, mainly because of fear of interactions with drugs they might prescribe. Many admitted concern that patients might be taking herbal medicines and not say so. But only 13% of respondents to the survey actually made a point of always asking their patients if they were using herbal medicines.

Dr Ike Iheanacho, the Editor of Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin, which published the survey, said ‘The fact that few doctors make a point of asking patients whether they are taking herbal medicines raises further safety concerns. Similarly unsettling is that even when doctors don’t know the effects of a herbal medicine a patient is taking, many won’t try to look these up.’ Since public interest in herbal medicines is unlikely to go away, it is important doctors get up to speed with their knowledge. If you are taking a herbal remedy, do let your doctor know about it and encourage him or her to advise you on likely interactions with any prescription medications.

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