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Integrative Medicine: Solid Evidence Is Key

Integrative Medicine. Robotic arm in lab adjusting components autonomously.

Integrative Medicine: Solid Evidence Is Key

Integrative Medicine is an approach to medical care that recognizes the benefit of combining conventional (standard) therapies (such as drugs and surgery) with complementary therapies (such as acupuncture, yoga, and specialty nutraceuticals) that are safe and effective.

In recent years, we’ve heard more and more about “integrative medicine,” a treatment approach that combines traditional medicines and evidence-supported alternative remedies to treat the whole person, not just a disease. 

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Integrative medicine is known as “holistic medicine,” “complementary medicine,” or “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). Once considered “fringe,” this approach has quickly entered the medical mainstream. 

Solid evidence is the critical component of Integrative Medicine

The American Hospital Association surveys show that the number of U.S. hospitals offering complementary therapies has grown dramatically, from 9% in 1998 to 42% in 2011. 

Academic Health Centers

More than 60 academic and professional medical centers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have formed the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine to promote integrative medicine throughout North America. These centers include Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, USC, and the University of Michigan. 

Doctors’ Lingering Doubts

Integrative medicine is practiced more widely than ever, but many doctors continue to have lingering concerns about it. In one hospital survey, for example, 44% of respondents listed “physician resistance” as one of the three main barriers to adopting integrative medicine programs.

Numerous doctors cite the lack of scientific evidence for their hesitation. “I worry that people are making claims in the context of scientific medicine that they cannot really justify,” Dr. Tom Delbanco of Harvard Medical School has stated. “There have been few rigorously controlled, scientifically sound studies in the area.”

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Solid Evidence Is the Critical Component

Regardless of how different doctors view integrative medicine, virtually all agree on the importance of meticulous scientific research and solid evidence: 

  • Was the testing controlled and double-blind?
  • Was the sample group representative? 
  • Were biases built into the test procedure? 
  • Were the conclusions appropriately drawn from the data and not overstated? 
  • If a mean result is stated, what is the confidence interval for that mean? 
  • What is the probability that a difference is due to chance? 

It’s reasonable to ask such questions, and when there is a compelling scientific basis for a particular integrative therapy, doctors will consider it.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion on integrative therapies thus far has focused on treatments such as herbs or meditation, where there is often little or no hard evidence to substantiate claims of effectiveness.

Considering the Specialty Nutraceuticals Option

Doctors who demand evidence also have another option: the integrated category of specialty supplements. Still unfamiliar to many in health care, these are dietary products developed to support specific structures and physical functions. They are not substitutes for drugs and other traditional medical treatments but rather part of an integrative medical approach that safely and effectively addresses diseases and other conditions. 

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Learn More

To learn more about medical foods, visit the FDA’s Dietary Supplements Guidance Documents and Regulatory Information.

Health & Wellness

Although it is quickly coming into the medical mainstream, integrative medicine is still a relatively new treatment approach. As such, it offers both great promise and reason for skepticism. The challenge, of course, is to separate the effective options from the ineffective or even harmful ones.

The best place to start this process is to look at those options that have proven their value and gained FDA acceptance.

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