A Role for Complementary Medicine

Josephine P. Briggs MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, discusses the role for complementary and alternative medicine in treating serious or life-threatening diseases in her short article “A Role for Complementary Medicine?”

She states that all decisions about health care and health promotion should be guided by the best available evidence. In the case of serious diseases, it is important to consider, separately, two aspects of care: 1) treating the disease and 2) ameliorating symptoms or side effects, or taking steps to improve quality of life and well-being.

Briggs goes on to say that when making treatment decisions, unproven "alternative medicine" approaches should not replace conventional medical care approaches known to be useful or helpful. Simply put, the evidence is not there.

However, explains Briggs, it is important to acknowledge that working toward a cure is only one part of dealing with serious illness, and conventional treatments don’t always meet all the needs of each individual. Quality of life and, for many, a sense of active participation and empowerment are also important. This is where the discussion around complementary approaches becomes more relevant. There is promise in some complementary approaches in alleviating the symptoms and side effects. For example, people with cancer may use acupuncture to relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea. Or patients may find relief for sleeplessness or anxiety through meditation. They are not cures, but these are areas where complementary approaches can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Information on complementary approaches can be found at nccam.nih.gov and at www.cancer.gov.