A role for alternative medicine

August 03, 1994

Perhaps it was inevitable that the first director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health would find the pressures of the job untenable. Hampered by a minuscule $2 million budget, caught between the enthusiasm of ardent believers in various alternative methods of treatment and the strict demands and glacial pace of traditional scientific investigations, Dr. Joseph Jacobs announced this week that he would return to his Connecticut home and to other medical pursuits. His departure leaves open a post that has important implications for the health care debate.

Dr. Jacobs, who took the job when the office was created in 1992, came with qualifications that are crucial in such a post. A pediatrician trained in Western medicine, he is also a Native American who understands traditional ways of healing. His replacement will need a similar ability to bridge the gap between orthodox and alternative forms of medicine.

Alternative forms of medical practice -- acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic medicine, biofeedback and the like -- have plenty of satisfied customers. A study conducted by Harvard University researchers found that in 1990, 34 percent of Americans used at least one non-orthodox form of medical therapy, spending $13.7 billion.

Few of these people would use these methods to the exclusion of orthodox medicine; most people view them as complementary forms of treatment. Many people offer fervent endorsements of these approaches to medicine. But because there have been so few attempts to quantify results, there is still a great deal of skepticism. One challenge facing the Office of Alternative Medicine is to encourage research that can provide credible evidence of the effectiveness of various kinds of therapy.

Alternative forms of medicine often get short shrift from the medical establishment. But there are plenty of problems Western medicine still hasn't solved, from migraine headaches to chronic fatigue illnesses to persistent pain from arthritis or back problems. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence and enthusiastic testimonials for alternative forms of treatments continue to grow.

Wellness is a complex goal, worthy of diverse ways of seeking it. The NIH should ensure that Dr. Jacobs' resignation is not a setback for the scientific exploration of alternative forms of medicine. Rather, it should use this opportunity to redouble its efforts to explore the effectiveness of diverse ways of healing.

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