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.”