The National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recently changed its name. It replaced the word ‘Alternative’ with ‘Integrative’, to reflect both the “growth of integrative health care within communities across the US” and its research focus. This is the third time this agency has been re-named. Is this just another attempt to give ‘alternative medicine (AltMed)’ the appearance of legitimacy?
Established by the US Congress in 1998, as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it has been shaped by politics, not by science. NCCAM was “set up to study alternative therapies and how they could be integrated into conventional treatment”. NCCIM and its predecessor agencies have spent nearly $2bn, much of it wasted on research into implausible interventions such as acupuncture, prayer, homeopathy, therapeutic touch and energy medicine. There was even one study with Reiki about rats stressed out by noise!
Comprising more than 1,000 interventions, the AltMed industry is worth $100bn per annum worldwide, including $4bn in Australia. It is an assortment of implausible, dishonest, expensive, and sometimes dangerous interventions which are “exuberantly promoted to a scientifically naïve public“. AltMed has origins outside scientific medicine and supposedly work on the immune system and (non-existent) ‘energy’ systems to identify and deal with “the underlying cause of illness“. However, while patients “feel better for a little bit”, AltMed does not address underlying disease processes and therefore cannot change the course of any disease.
NCCAM has funded over 3,800 research projects on complementary medicines and AltMed. The quality of research was lower than that of other other NIH Institutes. It was structured by its charter in a manner that “precludes an independent review of its performance”. The NCCIM argues that a treatment is valuable if patients report that it helped them, even if others receiving sham treatment said the same. According to their Director, “most in the mind and body area have actually shown impact”.
Integrative Medicine (IM) is an umbrella for a range of AltMed. It refers to the “blending of conventional and evidence-based complementary medicines and therapies with the aim of using the most appropriate of either or both modalities to care for the patient as a whole”. Proponents of IM claim to be experts in ‘nutritional and environmental’ medicine. They use unproven diagnostic tests on hair, blood or urine or ‘functional pathology’, to ‘diagnose’ heavy metal levels and ‘nutrient deficiencies’. Based on the results of these invalid tests, they might recommend chelation (for heart disease and heavy metal detox – costing up to $5,000), and other unproven interventions, such as megadose vitamin infusions, hyperthermia, acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, ‘natural’/bio-identical hormone therapy, genome-based personalised healthcare programs, ‘mind-body’ interventions and complementary medicines
Set up to prove that AltMed works, the NCCAM has done the opposite. AltMed research is driven by faith, hope and ideology, rather than by science, and the interventions have failed when tested. Although NCCAM has not demonstrated efficacy for any AltMed, the Center has not informed the public that even a single method is useless.
The recent National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Natural Therapies Review into 17 popular interventions concluded that there was insufficient evidence that any of them worked for any disease!
The NCCAM’s failure is evidenced by the lack of publication of their ‘trials’ in any peer-reviewed medical journals. Nearly two decades after its inception, NCCAM has made no AltMed discoveries which would justify its existence. The NCCIM will, however, continue to fund and promote pseudoscience. “Political pressures and the Center’s charter would seem to make this inevitable. Ethics and the public interest are compromised.”
Its name change does not represent progress. It a deceptive use of language and is no more than re-branding to enable it to continue its pointless research and its useless, sometimes dangerous, and always expensive, promotions.