By Marie Mendenhall

Pharmacists and other health professionals are misinformed about seniors’ use of alternative health therapies, OTC drugs and prescriptions, a Saskatchewan study shows.

Researcher Muriel Montbriand, who has a PhD in psychiatry, recently completed a four-year study that examined the perceptions of 714 seniors and 153 health professionals in Saskatoon. Of the health care professionals, 49 were pharmacists, 52 were nurses and 52 were physicians.

Lack of communication arose as the key issue when it comes to seniors use of medicines. Only 18% of the seniors told their pharmacists that they were using alternative therapies as well as their regular prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Meanwhile, the majority of all of the health professionals believed that seniors did report their use of alternatives.

One in three (34%) seniors admitted that they stopped taking their prescriptions, or used them differently, without telling a health professional. And while most professionals said they would listen to patients in cases of drug misuse, 44% of seniors said they would not tell a professional if they had misused a drug, and only 33% thought the professionals would listen to them and give information.

Of the three health groups, pharmacists had the most concerns about herbal and homeopathic products, with 82% favouring government control of standards, regulations and labeling. Just 69% of physicians and 56% of nurses believe alternatives should be regulated. Most seniors surveyed believe that alternative products are “natural, causing no harm.”

On the other hand, pharmacists were the most likely to suggest herbs and “old-time remedies” as possible treatments for customers. Physicians were generally most negative about alternative therapies. All three groups were critical of the use of megavitamins.

All groups agreed that pharmacists should have greater access to the doctor’s diagnosis, and that professionals should collaborate more on patient diagnosis and prescription regimes.

However, the health professionals were at odds when it came to describing how well they communicated with each other. Physicians generally felt that they had no trouble communicating with other professionals, yet more than half of pharmacists and nurses said they sometimes or often had trouble talking to physicians.

Montbriand’s report included the following recommendations, based on her interviews:

  • Pharmacy handouts should focus on major side effects, rather than every possible side effect.
  • Seniors want personalized computer printouts about their medication, diagnosis and health information.
  • Seniors should carry lists of all prescription over-the-counter and alternative drugs currently being used.
  • Health professionals should pressure Health Canada to regulate alternate therapies.

Montbriand submitted her report to Health Canada in June. It was funded by an NHRDP Community Health Scholar Award and the Saskatoon District, Health and Applied Research/Psychiatry.