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Search Data Reveal Top Alternative Medicines — Remedies Shared With Family, Not Doctors

Courtesy of Mi Habana
Raquel Medina, owner of Mi Habana catering, learned to use plants as medicine growing up in Cuba.

Depending on who you ask, there are many ways to cure a cold. Some people turn to brand-name cough syrup and others, to herbal teas.

In Texas, there’s a long tradition of combining both modern and alternative medicine — a tradition that patients rarely discuss with their doctors.

One Microsoft researcher got creative and figured out a high-tech way to learn about how people use alternative medicine.

Medicine from the kitchen 

Raquel Medina has a natural remedy for everything. In her kitchen there’s a box full of plant-based teas, a bottle of eucalyptus extract, Echinacea pills. In her freezer? Frozen squares of sábila, or aloe vera, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Medina, who grew up in Cuba, remembers her grandmother and aunts using sábila when someone got burned or cut with a machete. When she moved to Mexico, Medina picked up a few more alternative medicine tricks — all of which she used on her three daughters, who are now adults living in Texas.

“I can count on one hand the number of times I gave my daughters antibiotics,” Medina says. She prefers to use herbs and natural remedies for everything.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Frozen squares of sabila, or aloe vera, on a plate in Raquel Medina's Dallas kitchen.

Generations pass down home remedies

The Latino population in the Southwest is extremely diverse, but Tony Zavaleta says one thread that ties the community together is the use of alternative medicine.

Zavaleta, an anthropologist and fifth-generation Texan, has been studying folk medicine, or curanderismo for decades.

“Folk medicine is an integral part of culture,” he says. “[People] have seen it work for generations and so that’s what they use.”

He says most people learn traditional medicine from a mother or grandmother. In fact, he remembers his grandma coming to his house when he was a kid to treat his ear infection — with a rolled up piece of newspaper.

“She stuck it in my ear, and with a match, she lit the inside of it and there was an audible swoosh, and I was relieved of the pain,” Zavaleta says.

Search data show common cures

A lot of folk medicine happens in the privacy of people’s homes. That makes it extremely challenging to research. It’s a challenge Elad Yom-Tov, a Microsoft researcher based in Israel, was in a particularly good position to tackle. For years, Yom-Tov has looked at what our internet searches reveal about how we treat disease — away from the doctor’s office.

"Folk medicine is an integral part of culture."

“These data provide such an interesting window into people’s lives that was not available before,” Yom-Tov says.  

In general, companies don’t hand out raw search data. It’s private. Since Yom-Tov works at Microsoft, he had access to more than a million anonymous searches conducted on Bing, in both English and Spanish over a six-month period. He teamed up with University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley professors W.F. Strong, who teaches culture and communication, and Lupita Rodriguez Strong, who teaches English, to analyze the data.

The study, published in Health Behavior and Policy Review, broke down influenza-related searches into three categories: modern medicines (like Tylenol and Nyquil), Hispanic alternative medicines (like cayenne pepper and eucalyptus oil) and Western and alternative Chinese medicines (like garlic, ginseng and green tea).

The chart below illustrates the top searches for alternatives medicines.

Credit Molly Evans and Christy Robinson / KERA News

Using the data, Yom-Tov learned the farther away people live from the U.S.-Mexico border, the less likely they are to search in Spanish, which makes sense. But as people move north, does the number of searches for alternative medicine also fall?

“They do drop as you go away from the border, but not as quickly as language,” he says.

“That is quite interesting because to me. What it means is people of Hispanic origin stop using the language as often, but they still go back to Hispanic alternative medicines.”

Alternative treatments kept quiet around doctors

This matters because the majority of alternative medicine users don't tell their physicians if they’re taking, say, Echinacea or ginseng. Dr. Turya Nair, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at UT Southwestern, says sometimes those alternative methodsor treatments can affect the prescription medications they're using.

For example, Nair says patients may use the herbal medicine St. John’s Wort for depression, but it can reduce the effectiveness of some medications, like oral contraceptives, which are processed by the liver.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Zinc lozenges with Echinacea is standard cold medicine in the Medina household.

Nair says patients can feel uncomfortable talking about alternative medications, which is why doctors also need to ask questions, without being judgmental.

“Just being curious and saying, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard chamomile tea called Manzanilla tea. Can you tell me more about that? Where do you buy that? How often do you buy it?’ Those kind of questions help patients know I’m interested, also because I learn from my patients every day,” Nair says.

While internet search data may shed some light on what people are thinking, Nair says it’ll take more honest conversations in the doctor’s office to get a clearer picture of how modern and traditional medicine are coming together.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.