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Make Sure You Ask the Right Questions before Starting a New Treatment

Making informed decisions about trying something new often falls on your own shoulders.

A significant part of managing our own care and that of our care partner is being able to evaluate unsubstantiated claims or one-sided treatment recommendations. Making informed decisions about trying something new often falls on your own shoulders.

Start by asking yourself these key questions when making decisions — whether it’s a mainstream medical treatment or a complementary or alternative one.

1. Where did I learn about this?

Consider the source. Was it reported in a scientific journal, a supermarket tabloid, a print or TV ad, a website or a flyer you picked up somewhere? Did your doctor suggest it?

Results that are reported in a respected scientific journal are more likely to be credible than those you see in a supermarket tabloid or on social media. Reports in journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, orScience, are usually from research studies and are carefully reviewed for their integrity by scientists who are cautious about what they approve.

When you hear about a cure or treatment that’s not based on scientific research or reported in a scientific journal, you need to be especially critical when analyzing it. Before the Internet, scientific medical literature was hard to find. This isn’t true any longer. You can read the abstract of the most up-to-date articles by going to Google Scholar or PubMed. Like any search, the more specific you can be the better.

These searches may be more than you want to undertake or think you can understand on your own. If this is the case, connect with a health library affiliated with a hospital or other health organization. Health libraries have professionals and volunteers to assist you. Usually, you can connect with them by phone or email.

To find a health library, type “health library near me” into a search engine on your computer or smartphone. Even if there’s not one nearby, you can visit the online site of a major health care facility, such as Stanford, and connect with its health library. It doesn’t matter where you live.

2. Were the people who got better like me?

In the past, many research studies were conducted with easy-to-recruit people, meaning that older studies were often conducted on college students, nurses or white men. This has changed, but it’s still important to find out if the people who got better were like you. Were they from the same age group? Did they have similar lifestyles? Did they have the same health problems? Were they the same sex and race? If the people aren’t like you or your care partner, the results may not be the same.

3. Could anything else have caused the positive changes?

If a woman who returns from a two-week stay at a spa in the tropics reports that her arthritis improved dramatically thanks to the special diet and supplements she received, is it appropriate to attribute her improvement to the treatment? Couldn’t the warm weather, relaxation and pampering have had something to do with her improvement?

It’s important to look at all the conditions that changed when undergoing treatment. It’s common to take up a generally healthier lifestyle when starting a new treatment — could that be playing a part in the improvement? Did the people whose health improved start another medication or treatment at the same time? Has the weather improved? Can you think of anything else that could have affected the change?

4. Does the treatment suggest stopping other medications or treatments?

If a new treatment requires stopping another basic medication because of dangerous interactions, and the basic medication is important (and even if it isn’t), discuss it with your health care provider before making any changes.

5. Does the treatment involve not eating a well-balanced diet?

Maintaining a balanced diet is important for overall health. Does the treatment eliminate any necessary nutrients, or stress only a few nutrients that could be harmful? Be sure that you’re not sacrificing needed nutrients. This may mean making certain you’re getting them from another source. Also, be sure to avoid putting excessive stress on your organs by concentrating on only a few nutrients to the exclusion of others.

6. Can I think of any possible dangers or harm?

Some treatments take a toll on the body. All treatments have side effects and possible risks. Discuss these matters thoroughly with your health care provider. Only you can decide if the potential problems are worth the possible benefit, but you must have all the information to make that decision.

Many people think that if something is natural, it must be good for you. This may not be true. “Natural” isn’t necessarily better. Something isn’t mild or gentle just because it comes from a plant or animal. For example, the powerful heart medication digitalis, which comes from the foxglove plant, is “natural,” but the dosage must be exact or it could be dangerous. Hemlock comes from a plant, but it’s a deadly poison. Some treatments could be safe in small doses but dangerous in larger doses. Be careful.

In most countries, governments don’t monitor and control non-pharmaceutical treatments. Except in Germany and Canada, no regulatory agency is responsible for verifying that what’s listed on the label of a nutritional supplement is what’s in the bottle, or that it’s safe. Supplements don’t have the same safeguards as medications. Do some research about the company selling the product before you try it. Consumer Report, for example, often writes about alternative treatments.

7. Am I willing to go to the trouble or expense?

Do you have the money to give this treatment the time it needs to produce an improvement? Is your health or your care partner’s health strong enough to maintain this new regimen? Will you be able to handle it emotionally? Will this put a strain on your relationships at home or at work?

If you ask yourself these questions and decide to try a new treatment, it’s very important to inform your own or your care partner’s health care professional. Only in this way can you get the best help and the best advice. 

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