Research in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) .

Alternative medicine

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In 2011, the following leading researchers of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – no I was not invited – had a meeting in Italy, did a brainstorm and decided what we would need to know about SCAM by 2020 (today, in other words):

They proposed 6 core areas of research that should be investigated to achieve a robust knowledge base and to allow stakeholders to make informed decisions:

  1. Research into the prevalence of SCAM in Europe: Reviews show that we do not know enough about the circumstances in which SCAM is used by Europeans. To enable a common European strategic approach, a clear picture of current use is of the utmost importance.
  2. Research into differences regarding citizens’ attitudes and needs towards SCAM: Citizens are the driver for CAM utilization. Their needs and views on SCAM are a key priority, and their interests must be investigated and addressed in future SCAM research.
  3. Research into safety of SCAM: Safety is a key issue for European citizens. SCAM is considered safe, but reliable data is scarce although urgently needed in order to assess the risk and cost-benefit ratio of SCAM.
  4. Research into the comparative effectiveness of SCAM: Everybody needs to know in what situation SCAM is a reasonable choice. Therefore, we recommend a clear emphasis on concurrent evaluation of the overall effectiveness of SCAM as an additional or alternative treatment strategy in real-world settings.
  5. Research into effects of context and meaning: The impact of effects of context and meaning on the outcome of SCAM treatments must be investigated; it is likely that they are significant.
  6. Research into different models of SCAM health care integration: There are different models of SCAM being integrated into conventional medicine throughout Europe, each with their respective strengths and limitations. These models should be described and concurrently evaluated; innovative models of SCAM provision in health care systems should be one focus for SCAM research.

‘Look, half the work is done! All you need to do is fill in the top part so we can legally say the bottom part.’

The researchers then added:

We also propose a methodological framework for SCAM research. We consider that a framework of mixed methodological approaches is likely to yield the most useful information. In this model, all available research strategies including comparative effectiveness research utilising quantitative and qualitative methods should be considered to enable us to secure the greatest density of knowledge possible. Stakeholders, such as citizens, patients and providers, should be involved in every stage of developing the specific and relevant research questions, study design and the assurance of real-world relevance for the research.

Furthermore, structural and sufficient financial support for research into SCAM is needed to strengthen SCAM research capacity if we wish to understand why it remains so popular within the EU. In order to consider employing SCAM as part of the solution to the health care, health creation and self-care challenges we face by 2020, it is vital to obtain a robust picture of SCAM use and reliable information about its cost, safety and effectiveness in real-world settings. We need to consider the availability, accessibility and affordability of SCAM. We need to engage in research excellence and utilise comparative effectiveness approaches and mixed methods to obtain this data.

Our recommendations are both strategic and methodological. They are presented for the consideration of researchers and funders while being designed to answer the important and implicit questions posed by EU citizens currently using SCAM in apparently increasing numbers. We propose that the EU actively supports an EU-wide strategic approach that facilitates the development of SCAM research. This could be achieved in the first instance through funding a European SCAM coordinating research office dedicated to foster systematic communication between EU governments, public, charitable and industry funders as well as researchers, citizens and other stakeholders. The aim of this office would be to coordinate research strategy developments and research funding opportunities, as well as to document and disseminate international research activities in this field.

With the aim to develop sustainability as second step, a European Centre for SCAM should be established that takes over the monitoring and further development of a coordinated research strategy for SCAM, as well as it should have funds that can be awarded to foster high quality and robust independent research with a focus on citizens health needs and pan-European collaboration.

We wish to establish a solid funding for SCAM research to adequately inform health care and health creation decision-making throughout the EU. This centre would ensure that our vision of a common, strategic and scientifically rigorous approach to SCAM research becomes our legacy and Europe’s reality. We are confident that our recommendations will serve these essential goals for EU citizens.

As I know all of the members of the panel personally, I am not surprised by the content of this document. That does not mean, however, that I do not find it remarkable. In my view, it is remarkable because of the nature of the 6 items that we allegedly need to know by 2020, and because of the fact that, even though none of them seem particularly demanding, today we have clarity or sound information on none of them. I also thought that both the research topics and the research methods were on the woolly side and, to a large degree, avoided what would be standard in conventional medicine. The ‘vision’ of the 13 researchers thus turns out to be the view of 13 partially sighted people on an array of platitudes.

Being just a bit sarcastic, the document could be seen as a plea for letting SCAM researchers:

  • continue to play on their far from level playing field,
  • use their preferred and largely inadequate methodologies,
  • pretend they do cutting edge science,
  • continue to avoid the real issues,
  • enjoy a life free of demanding challenges,
  • have pots of EU money for doing largely useless work.

In a word, I am confident that their recommendations would not have served any essential goals for EU citizens.