News blog

NIH alternative-medicine centre proposes name change

The US National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a perennial punching bag, no longer wants to be ‘alternative’. Director Josephine Briggs announced today that NCCAM is accepting public comments on a proposal to rename itself the “National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health”.

The decision, Briggs says, is a reflection of NCCAM’s changing mission. When the centre was founded in 1998, it funded studies of questionable therapies such as homeopathy and remote healing. Over the years, such trials have become less common; NCCAM’s current research focuses more on holistic health — such as the role of yoga in pain management, as a complement to medication. “We’re seeing a progression in our research agenda and an increased integration of the types of practices we study into conventional care,” Briggs says.

She emphasizes a distinction between this complementary approach, which she says is increasingly used by institutions such as veterans’ hospitals, and alternative medicine that patients may choose over evidence-based medicine. “I worry a lot about people who choose something that’s completely unproven when good medical care involves something we know will help,” Briggs adds.

But NCCAM’s name change may not be enough to convince some critics that the centre has integrated itself into the National Institutes of Health’s research mission. Donald Marcus, an immunologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says that  the centre’s research programmes and attempts to include complementary medicine in medical education continue to be a “waste of time”. While he agrees that NCCAM’s research portfolio has improved — it has discontinued funding clinical trials of herbal therapies, for instance — Marcus see the change as cosmetic. So-called integrative care, which includes therapies such as acupuncture, includes “therapies not supported by scientific evidence,” he says.

Arthur Grollman, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, questions the motives of the name change. “I think they do understand these names are extremely important,” he says, now that criticism of alternative medicine “is beginning to register and hurt”. He adds that integrative health  has a fuzzy definition. 

Briggs says she does not know whether the new name will eventually alleviate the criticism. “We are trying to make the very strong case that we are about research,” she says. “It has research in the name.”


  1. Report this comment

    Donald Marcus said:

    I wish to clarify my comments which were misrepresented in part. I did not make a blanket statement that NCCAM’s funding of research programs “are a waste of time”. I said that NCCAM funded some valuable research, especially in the area of neuroscience and placebos, but the Center’s support for totally implausible therapies, such as homeopathy and healing touch, was a waste of money. .
    Donald Marcus

  2. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro said:

    From words to facts. If today CVD, DM,and cancer are growing epidemics, we must admit that the so-called “scientific” Medicine has failed. Consequently, we must all feel the unavoidable need to explore new ways and suggest new therapies. For example, according to Donald Marcus, Briggs and all protesters of complementary therapy, what accounts for the reason of the silence on the Primary Prevention and Quantum Therapy?

  3. Report this comment

    Timothy Gorski said:

    NCCAM is the only component of the NIH that is oriented towards methods of treatment and/or nonscientific and implausible concepts of health and illness. All the other components of the NIH are oriented towards various organ systems and their associated disease states. That is why NCCAM doesn’t “fit” – because it is a marketing device for people who push ideas and methods that do not fit in with science-based medicine. Now if NCCAM were truly to shift its mission in a useful direction it would be to focus on studying WHY people get fooled and HOW they can be “immunized” or otherwise protected from having their understanding and thinking about health-related matters being corrupted – and their health damaged – by those who have a financial interest in selling them unproven and ineffective products and therapies. Somehow I think this won’t fly politically. Certainly, Congresspeople like Harkin and Burton would object because their purpose in establishing the NCCAM was to legitimize “alternative medicine” and prove that it actually works.

  4. Report this comment

    Barbara Solomon said:

    Many continue to state that some of these therapies are unproven, implausible, ineffective…yet, without the research, how can they become proven? There are many implausible things that happen every day, yet we either blindly accept them without thinking about it or totally reject because of their being different than our cultural norms.

    The fact that acupuncture has been in use for thousands of years does not prove it works but it must mean something…either the folks who employed it all those years were delusional fools or it worked for them. Or both. Does it really matter why it works? If it can reduce pain & improve outcomes, why not promote it? There is evidence that in certain cases, it works better than what western medicine has to offer.

    Look at any PDR, more then 50% of the entries state that the mechanism of action is unknown or poorly understood. Double standard? Fear of competition?

    After all, many of these alternative or complementary treatments do not carry the risk that western treatments provide. Look at the number of deaths caused by medically induced errors…you won’t see nearly as many with, per ratio, with these integrative treatments…people are not a lung, or a heart or a bone…they are a whole unit that does, believe it or not, work together!

    And, until western medical practitioners understand that, people will continue to search for therapies that promote this concept.

Comments are closed.