In 1992 Congress allocated $2 million to establish an Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health "to investigate and evaluate promising unconventional medical practices." In 1998 NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus proposed having all alternative medicine research done through the NIH institutes, with the OAM coordinating the process. Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa), who pushed for the founding of the OAM in 1992, now pushed through legislation that elevated its status to that of a Center (NCCAM). Current funding is approximately $120 million.
The current controversy was launched on January 15 by a posting on the website the Obama administration created during the transition to solicit ideas:
Biomedical research funding is falling because of the nation's budget problems, but biomedical research itself has never been more promising, with rapid progress being made on a host of diseases. Here's a way to increase the available funding to NIH without increasing the NIH budget: halt funding to NCCAM, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This Center was created not by scientists, who never thought it was a good idea, but by Congress, and specifically by just two Congressmen in the 1990's who believed in particular "alternative" (but scientifically dubious) treatments. Defunding NCCAM would save at least $225 million, possibly more.Senator Harkin's comments, intended to support NCCAM, only make the Center look worse:
...Any legitimate, promising medical treatment can be funded by one of the existing NIH Institutes. There's no need for a separate center for "alternative" therapies - but what has happened is that NCCAM has become a last refuge for poorly designed, unscientific studies that couldn't get funded through the normal peer-reviewed process.
The idea that the Center's role is to validate faith-based health beliefs shows a deep misunderstanding of science. If the Center has a role it is to test hypotheses, not to validate faith."One of the purposes when we drafted that legislation in 1992 . . . was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say it's fallen short. I think quite frankly that in this center, and previously in the office before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things, rather than seeking out and proving things."
But the controversy over NCCAM isn't new. In the early 20th century organized medicine was horrified by the growth of Christian Science. Wise physicians recognized that the emergence of Christian Science reflected a sense that something was missing in "conventional" medicine. That hunger is still present. More than 1/3 of U.S. adults use "alternative" medicine techniques.
This enthusiasm proves nothing about effectiveness. But it does point to phenomena that warrant serious scientific study. Otherwise the field will be ceded to quacks and hucksters, in the tradition of Mark Twain's Duke and Dauphin, selling snake oil.
I don't have a sense of how well NCCAM has carried out its mission, but some of its goals seem right on target, as exemplified by:
* Identify the common and specific features of widely used mind-body medicine practicesBut there is a worrisome ambiguity in other goals:
* Determine the extent to which patient expectations prior to treatment and satisfaction following manipulative and body-based practices are related to objectively measured biological endpoints
* Enhance understanding of the social, cultural, and economic factors relating to the use of CAM.
* Establish the efficacy of selected biologically based practices to maintain health, prevent disease, and treat conditions of public health importanceIs the aim here to evaluate whether specific widely used techniques are effective and provide benefit, or to "prove" that public beliefs in these techniques are indeed true?
* Document the benefits of some CAM whole medical system treatments for selected health conditions
If it's the latter, NCCAM should be defunded. But insofar as it undertakes serious evaluations of widely used techniques, and studies just what is happening when patients derive significant subjective benefit from techniques that are not validated in controlled trials, NCCAM will be making a worthwhile effort.
In voting with its money and time the public is saying it feels healed by alternative techniques. The mechanisms of healing are worthy of scientific study, just as the mechanisms of disease are.