Education About Herbal Medications Lacking

Physicians should discuss the potential uses, benefits, and side effects of herbal medications with their patients.

Despite a lack of scientific supporting evidence, physicians should discuss herbal medications with their patients, especially among those with heart disease, a recent study suggests. Physicians should be able to talk about the clinical use, benefits, and side effects of certain herbal medications with their patients, according to the authors.

Prior studies show that vitamin D supplements may improve asthma treatment and statin tolerance, but the use of the supplement has not been validated by regulatory agencies.

Herbal treatments are not required to undergo clinical testing before marketing, and do not require regulatory approval, which means the safety and efficacy of these treatments are rarely proven. Although some brands choose to undergo further testing and certification, they do not go through the extensive regulatory approval process.

In the United States, herbal treatments are only declared unsafe by the FDA if they have caused harm. For patients with heart disease, herbal supplements are commonly used for unproven cardiovascular benefits.

In a study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers examined 42 herbal medications that are thought to treat 1 or more heart conditions, including hypertension, heart failure, coronary artery disease, dyslipidemia, thromboembolic disorders, or peripheral artery disease. Then, the study authors chose the 10 most used supplements to determine potential uses, biological findings, clinical data, and safety.

While there is some clinical evidence related to herbal medications, the investigators noted an overall lack of evidence. There was also little evidence to determine a cause and effect scenario between herbal medications and side effects, according to the study.

The study authors said that since herbal medications are popular and can cause safety concerns, such as cause drug interactions, physicians should educate their patients about the treatments.

A majority of patients do not consider herbal medications as drugs, so they do not disclose their use. It is also unlikely that physicians seek out information regarding the use of herbal medications. However, herbal drugs have been linked to medication non-adherence, which could result in patient harm, according to the study.

"Communicating with the patient is a crucial component of the process," said senior study author Graziano Onder, MD, PhD. "The pros and cons of specific herbal medications should be explained and their risk-benefit profile properly discussed."

Physician education is key, since studying the use of herbal medications is not an aspect of traditional medical school curriculum in the United States. Receiving the proper education regarding the treatments is necessary to help patients make informed choices that will benefit their health.

"Physicians should improve their knowledge of herbal medications in order to adequately weigh the clinical implications related to their use," Dr Onder concluded. "Physicians should explain that natural does not always mean safe."