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Pilot study finds use of herbal medicine prevalent; suggests need for further understanding of interactions with mainstream medicines

Release Date: May 7, 2014
Contact: Kendi Parvin - 608.442.3748 kendi.parvin@wismed.org

Madison (May 7, 2014) – Herbal medicine use is common in the United States, especially among immigrants, with estimates that approximately 20 percent of the US population and 30 percent of Latinos regularly use herbal medicines. However, understanding of plant use as medicine is incomplete, with significant gaps about use in the Midwest as well as about how home herbal medicine use interacts with mainstream medicines, says a research report in the current issue of WMJ (vol. 113, no.2).

“The results of this pilot study illustrate an extensive culture of herbal medicine use amongst Latinos in Madison. This culture involves a broad network of information and plant sources, and plants that include foods and spices,” wrote the authors, who are from the Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, and the Department of Botany, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study included interviews and focus groups with 42 people. It found that the 57 medicinal plants mentioned by participants were used for 35 distinct health and disease categories. These herbal medicines were reported to have been obtained from personal gardens, relatives and friends locally and abroad, mail order and local retail establishments. In the retail sites they were sold as fresh plants, dried plants, spices, foods and packaged products, with the majority being food items that also serve a medicinal purpose.

Some participants mentioned they may or may not disclose their herbal medicine use to their health care provider. Decisions about disclosure were found to be complex with participants indicating they discussed herbal medicine use in some cases but withheld the information at times when there was felt to be a lack of knowledge or respect by the health care provider or when the medical condition was perceived to not have an effective mainstream medicine to treat it. These findings are consistent with other research that documents significant rates of nondisclosure of herbal medicines to primary care providers.

This pilot study was small, which limits the generalizability of the results, but sets the stage for future studies that could lead to the development of educational interventions for physicians and patients, making herbal use safer and helping to avoid adverse plant-pharmaceutical interactions.

Published by the Wisconsin Medical Society, WMJ is devoted to the interests of the medical profession and health care in the Midwest. This peer-reviewed publication, which is available in print and electronic format, is one of the few state medical society-sponsored medical journals that publish a large amount of original research and academic content.