Aussie regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), defines complementary medicine as medicinal products containing ingredients such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, homeopathic and certain aromatherapy preparations.
Globally, an increasing number of people are spending more on complementary medicines, with 51% of them buying these products from pharmacies. In Australia, approximately 69% of the population use complementary medicines.
Among them, 87% expect pharmacists to be able to recommend suitable products, while a further 92% expect them to be able to provide accurate information on the safety and efficacy of complementary medicines.
Still, the true extent of Aussie pharmacists' knowledge on the safety and efficacy of complementary medicines is unknown.
As such, researchers from the University of Canberra and Queensland University set out to determine their knowledge on the safety and efficacy of complementary medicines.
They used an online survey validated and distributed by three professional pharmacy bodies in Australia to assess Aussie pharmacists' knowledge of a selection of complementary medicines said by the Australian Therapeutic Guidelines to have therapeutic effects.
They then collected a total of 535 completed surveys for their final analysis, most of which had been answered by community pharmacists.
Subsequently, they reported a mean knowledge score of a mere 62%, also noting that there were "no statistically significantly different results from pharmacists with a nutritional qualification".
They added that Aussie pharmacists had a basic knowledge of complementary medicines with defined clinical effects, but as seen from the survey answers, preferred to select an incorrect answer instead of choosing the "I am unsure of this answer" option.
Unsurprisingly, accredited pharmacists scored higher than hospital, intern and community pharmacists on the survey, with the latter all selecting the 'unsure' option significantly more frequently than the former.
However, while the accredited pharmacists' generally superior knowledge could explain this pattern, they might also have been less willing to admit when they did not know the answer, as they were expected to score higher.
This is worrying, especially because there may be harmful interactions between supplements and pharmaceuticals, albeit in very rare cases.
Additionally, unregulated complementary products run the risk of adulteration and contamination with prescription drugs.
The researchers concluded: "This study has shown that pharmacists have a basic knowledge of a selection of complementary medicines with a defined clinical effect. Pharmacists also may recognise the limits to their knowledge.
"These findings are reflective of international trends and add to the growing body of evidence identifying the barriers to pharmacists' safe and informative sale of complementary medicines to consumers.
"This result indicates a requirement for specialised and targeted education focusing on relevant and efficacious complementary medicines with a strong clinical evidence base."
Source: Australian Journal of Primary Health Research
"Australian pharmacists' knowledge of the efficacy and safety of complementary medicines"
Authors: Freya Waddington, et al.