Research and the Future of Integrative Medicine

Research and the Future of Integrative Medicine

Apr 9, 2010

As CEO of a natural remedy company, I am intrigued by the recent surge of interest in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in the United States. CAM modalities such as chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathy and prevention are increasingly seen as mainstream and prevention is now viewed by many as a key part of their health care program.

Add to that the fact that insurance companies are beginning to cover CAM services, medical schools are rapidly deploying new “integrative medicine” programs and the number of hospitals in the U.S. that offer CAM services has more than doubled in the last decade, it is clear that CAM is helping to transform the health care landscape.

One of the greatest challenges our industry will face in the days to come is to find ways to deliver meaningful research on the efficacy of CAM modalities. Most of the current research methodologies have their roots in Cartesian thinking, where complex systems are understood by reducing them to their component parts. As a result, today’s research methods are narrowly focused on subsystems rather than on whole systems.

This approach was cemented in the American model 100 years ago as a result of a Carnegie Institute-funded study of the American medical education system called “The Flexner Report.” The dominance of specialists in medical practice and of specialization in medical research so prevalent today was uncommon prior to Flexner’s catalytic report. While there is no doubt that we have learned much in the last century in the field of medicine, I often wonder if we’ve lost the forest for the trees.

Most researchers today are using the same reductionist approach to CAM research, which is a bit like describing stereo sound with one ear covered or describing depth perception with one eye closed. Researching CAM modalities and more importantly integrative approaches (conventional + CAM) by focusing on a single intervention may not provide accurate data on a complex, holistic intervention. Modalities such as homeopathy or acupuncture, for instance, are often marginalized because they do not fit in the research models presently in use, no matter how many thousands of years of evidence of their effectiveness stand in their defense!

Many of the CAM modalities work as much with the physics of the body as with its bio-chemistry. The reductionist research models largely focus on the body’s biochemistry, and far too often the logic “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” is applied to research of potentially valuable and viable CAM interventions.

As I mentioned, CAM and Integrative Medicine are on the rise. Insurance companies, medical educators, medical professionals and patients are all interested, but the jury is still out – not for lack of evidence of the effectiveness of CAM approaches – but for want of the commonly accepted credentials given to “proven and approved” medical approaches in our era.

We have a lot of work to do to satisfy all of the stakeholders in this debate, but I am confident that this rekindled interest in medical approaches used successfully in many cases for thousands of years (acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, botanical remedies, etc.) will transform the landscape of medical care in our country in the years to come.

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