Think you know everything about your older patients? Maybe not.

By Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published August 26, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study from the University of Michigan found that 66% of older adults use at least one integrative medicine treatment.

  • Integrative medicine helps many people manage symptoms of acute and chronic conditions.

  • Physicians should improve communication techniques to better understand how integrative medicine fits into their care plan.

Most physicians pride themselves on their communication skills and ability to gather information from patients. But a 2022 study from the University of Michigan suggests they may not be as good at it as they thought—especially with older patients.[]

The study found that among patients 50–80 years of age, 66% report using at least one integrative medicine strategy in addition to their prescribed treatment plan.

However, only 18% have actually talked to their physician about which integrative medicine techniques they use.

An integrative medicine refresher

Also known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), integrative medicine helps people with a variety of conditions better manage symptoms and improve their quality of life.[] Examples of integrated medicine include:

  • Diet supplements

  • Meditation

  • Aromatherapy

  • Massage

  • Acupuncture

In many cases, patients use these forms of treatment for managing symptoms including digestive issues, insomnia, pain, or stress. Other people use CAM to help manage more chronic conditions, such as cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression and other mental health conditions.

Patients interested in integrative medicine should be cautioned that these treatments are not an equal substitute for conventional medical treatment.

Some treatments may even be inappropriate for certain patient populations.

Improving patient communication

Although 66% of the older adults in the University of Michigan study were already using some form of integrative medicine, an even larger percentage—87%—said they would be comfortable discussing ways to include it in their healthcare routines.[]

Effective communication with patients goes well beyond merely communicating information and giving instructions.[] Assessing the unique needs of individual patients is essential for understanding them as patients and meeting their needs. Physicians should be sure to assess each patient’s:

  • Barriers to healthcare competency (physical and mental)

  • Concerns about their condition

  • Preferences and needs for their care

  • Readiness to learn

Gain trust by learning more about each patient and gathering clues as to what each one needs from their meeting with a physician.

Asking whether patients have specific concerns is more effective than simply asking if they have questions. Coupled with active listening, the answers clinicians receive help identify core beliefs that may influence motivation and compliance with treatment.

Patients will often readily tell physicians about their fears and worries. Using open-ended questions usually exposes misconceptions and other details, like the use of integrative medicine practices. This information should be noted in the patient’s health record.

What this means for you

Many older patients use integrative medicine to help manage symptoms of acute and chronic health conditions. However, most have not shared this information with their physician. Physicians should work to develop better communication skills with patients so you can fully understand all aspects of their treatment plan.

Read Next: Health concerns of the super-elderly to watch out for

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