The University Record, April 22, 1998

Pharmacy seminar focuses on alternative medicinals

Herb buyer Jill Brown from Ann Arbor's Whole Foods Market measures out a portion of Echinacea, a popular herb that is said to increase the body’s natural immunity. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Can you spice up your love life with ginseng or lift your spirits with St. John's wort? Will a dose of melatonin help ward off jet lag? Is the prescription for a cancer-free life to be found in a bottle of vitamin E capsules?

Although herbal remedies and other alternative medicinals have been around for thousands of years, plenty of questions remain about their safety and effectiveness. A day-long program during the College of Pharmacy's 20th Annual Spring Seminar on Friday (April 24) is designed to help pharmacists and other health professionals explore answers to some of those questions. Anyone with an interest in alternative therapies may also benefit from the discussion and is welcome to attend the program.

What accounts for the sudden surge in the popularity of these products? Frustration with conventional medicine surely plays a role, as does the perpetual human quest for medical miracles. Consumers may feel, too, that they're getting a bargain when they opt for herbal remedies over prescription drugs. A recent study funded by the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association found the average cost of an over-the-counter medicine to be about $5, compared to $89 for a prescription medication, including a visit to the doctor.

But loading a shopping cart with megavitamin supplements and herbal health aids can still add up to a hefty tab at the cash register, and there may be other costs to consider. Although marketed as herbal alternatives to prescription medications, some products contain potentially harmful prescription-strength drugs. Recently, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers not to buy an over-the-counter herbal sleep aid because it contained an unlabeled prescription drug ingredient that posed possible health risks.

Unlike FDA-approved drugs, herbal remedies and vitamin and mineral products are sold as dietary supplements, which are not monitored or controlled by the FDA. No clinical trials are required to establish their efficacy. So what does the FDA think of these products? FDA public affairs specialist Evelyn DeNike will discuss that issue during the pharmacy seminar. Sorting through the reams of information--and misinformation--on alternative medicinals can be confusing for consumers, and that's where health professionals can help, says Judith Fedchenko, coordinator of quality improvement activities at St. Joseph Mercy Health System and a clinical instructor in the College of Pharmacy. Fedchenko's presentation will focus on incorporating alternative medicine in health care practices.

Pharmacists can play a key role in helping patients choose the best products for their needs and helping physicians assess whether the products are doing their patients any good, Fedchenko says. But for this process to work, consumers have to be honest about their use of herbal remedies. Many people hide their herbal habits from their doctors and pharmacists for fear they'll be scolded or ridiculed. A Harvard University study published in 1991 showed, in fact, that only about one-third of patients who were using alternative therapies admitted it to their physicians.

Part of a pharmacist's role, too, is letting consumers know when pills and potions aren't the answer. Ever since laboratory and public health studies suggested that compounds called antioxidants might reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, people have been popping vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene, zinc, selenium, chromium and other antioxidant supplements. But there's no solid evidence that these products--in pill form--protect against disease, says Imad Btaiche, clinical assistant professor of pharmacy and clinical pharmacist. Instead of downing pills, people should be filling their plates with fruits and vegetables and making lifestyle changes, which are more clearly linked to health benefits, he says. Btaiche will speak on the role of dietary antioxidants in health and disease.

Other speakers on the program are Mary J. Ferrill, associate professor, University of the Pacific School of Pharmacy, who will speak on "Back to Nature: Making Sense of Natural Products," and Dennis K. Chernin, homeopathic physician and co-author of Homeopathic Remedies for Health Professionals and Laypeople, whose presentation will be on homeopathic medicine.

The program will be held 8:15 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Rackham Amphitheater. The registration fee of $80 includes handout materials, self-assessment tools, continental breakfast (served 7:30-8:15 a.m.), and a certificate of continuing education credit. Lunch will be available for an additional charge. To register or for more information, contact Carol Brown, continuing education coordinator, College of Pharmacy, 764-8053, or send e-mail to cwoods@umich.edu. A program is on the Web at http:// www.umich.edu/~pharmacy/calendar/cespr98/front.html.