National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)

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Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director's Page
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

A New Conversation

August 20, 2013

Before I took on the role of Director of NCCAM, I worked as a kidney physician and researcher and regularly saw patients who were struggling with very difficult-to-treat symptoms. Now at NCCAM, I often have the opportunity to travel and meet people: consumers, health care providers, and researchers. These interactions have allowed me to hear a wide variety of insights, and I’m often struck at how strongly people react regarding the topic of complementary and alternative medicine. There are those who embrace these “all-natural” approaches and avoid conventional medicine completely. And there are those who completely dismiss anything labeled “complementary” as quackery.

I feel very strongly that this all-or-nothing debate does a disservice to patient care. The field of complementary and alternative medicine encompasses a very wide array of products and practices, with the only unifying factor being that we’re still exploring their safety and value. By embracing anything that is deemed “natural,” patients may put themselves at risk, falsely believing that natural equals safe. They may also forgo proven therapies that can help their condition. Likewise, by completely dismissing complementary approaches, we miss an opportunity to uncover and take advantage of promising therapies that can address very practical problems.

It’s because of this ongoing debate about the value of complementary and alternative medicine and research in this field that my Deputy Director, Jack Killen, and I wrote a Viewpoint essay published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association. In the essay, we make the case for a fresh, balanced, and nuanced conversation regarding the research being done, looking at each type of practice on its own.

During the last 14 years we’ve learned a great deal about approaches for which safety is a concern as well as approaches that have promise for difficult symptoms, especially chronic pain. Our 2011 Strategic Plan outlined a set of goals and a framework for priority setting. In 2012, we put this plan into action, and you are welcome to review the list of new and competing grants funded in that year.

The conversation and debate are important, especially because we’re talking about a public investment. So, what do you think? How does research inform your health care decisions? Please come and join the conversation on our Research Blog.

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