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Study: More doctors learning alternative medicine, but safety still questioned

herbs September 1, 1998
Web posted at: 6:08 p.m. EDT (2208 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Al Hinman

BERLIN (CNN) -- Although so-called "natural medicines" are the routine remedy for an estimated one-third of the U.S. population, few doctors routinely prescribe them.

However, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more doctors may soon be prescribing zinc for the common cold or St. John's wort for depression.

The study shows more than half of medical schools in the United States now offer at least some courses in "alternative" therapies.

If more doctors are aware of treatments such as acupuncture and herbal remedies, it may be easier for them to discuss it with their patients.

"Roughly three-fourths of those who use alternative therapies never mention this to their doctors," said Dr. David Eisenberg of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "So it's my sense that the current status quo, which could easily be described as 'don't ask, don't tell,' is obsolete and needs to be abandoned."

But many doctors say they wonder if they can trust alternative therapies. They want the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require the same level of scientific proof of natural medicines the FDA requires of prescription drugs.

But unless Congress changes federal law, the FDA is very limited in its authority to regulate botanical or herbal treatments.

In Germany, where the herb St. John's wort, not Prozac, is the most-prescribed anti-depressant, the alternative medicine industry is regulated by the government.

"Something like a sixth of all the products on the market are natural products, and many of the leading prescribed products are indeed natural products," said Melvin Eaves of herbal drug company Schwabe International.

Germany's Commission E requires natural medicine manufacturers to prove their products are safe and effective in much the same way the FDA controls prescription drugs in the United States.

Schwabe International's variety of natural medicines are shipped around the world. But on U.S. shelves, their pills are up against competitors that don't need to meet the same standards for potency and quality.

"This is a great problem in your country," said Dr. Dieter Loew of Commission E. "You have a lot of ginkgo biloba, a lot of hypericum (St. John's wort), but the quality of one is not the same as the other."

The commission does more than ensure consistency for botanicals -- it also sponsors extensive scientific research.

"Most of the clinical research that's conducted on the leading herbal medicines in the United States comes from Germany," said Mark Blumenthal, chairman of the American Botanical Council.

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