One of the main reasons for the increasing use of traditional medicine is a growing trend for patients to take a more proactive approach to their own health and to seek out different forms of self-care. In the process, many consumers have turned to natural traditional medicinal products and practices, under the assumption that “natural means safe”. However, this is not necessarily the case. A number of reports have revealed examples of incorrect use of traditional medicines by consumers, including incidents of overdose, unknowing use of suspect or counterfeit herbal medicines, and unintentional injuries caused by unqualified practitioners. In an effort to prevent similar incidents, there is a need to ensure that consumers are well informed about the proper use of traditional medicine.
These guidelines are intended to provide technical guidance in order to assist Member States in developing context- specific and reliable consumer information promoting proper use of traditional medicine (TM) and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In developing the information, health authorities are recommended to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders representing different perspectives, including NGOs, professional and consumer organizations and TM/CAM researchers.
The objectives of these guidelines are:
• To provide an overview of the key elements directly tied to consumers that must be in place in health systems in order to ensure proper use of TM/CAM;
• To describe general principles and activities for the development of reliable consumer information about TM/CAM;
• To outline the key elements that should be taken into consideration when developing consumer information promoting proper use of TM/CAM.
The long-term goal is to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of TM/CAM use by empowering consumers to become active participants in health care and to make informed choices.
However, WHO recognizes that efforts to promote the proper use of TM/CAM through consumer education/training must be supported by other measures such as the establishment of national laws and regulations to control herbal medicines products, efforts to ensure the qualified practice of TM/CAM therapies, and, where appropriate, measures to control information about TM/CAM used in advertisements.
In a follow-up to the development of these guidelines, WHO is to organize a series of interregional, regional and national workshops for national health authorities and relevant NGOs on how to develop consumer information on the proper use of TM/CAM and how to organize education/training programmes on this at a national level.
Since the use of TM/CAM varies from country to country, national health authorities and NGOs should rely on their own specific situation to develop appropriate consumer information and relevant training programmes. Some governments are already aware of the importance of consumer education in relation to the safe and effective use of TM/CAM and have developed consumer education information. It is important to note that such information should make use of engaging pictures and easily understood language so that it is easily accessible to a greater portion of the population. An excellent example of this can be found in Annex I: Leaflets promoting proper use of TM/CAM published by the Department of Health, Hong Kong SAR, China.
WHO believes that consumer information and education will help consumers to seek out appropriate types of self-care and, as a result, help them to obtain more benefits from TM/CAM and reduce unnecessary risks.
Dr Xiaorui Zhang
Traditional Medicine (TRM)
Department of Essential Drugs and Medicines Policy (EDM)
World Health Organization