“Alternative” health care no longer alternative

Michele Maiers, DC, MPH | January 06, 2015

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine changes name to “Complementary and Integrative Health.”

As a sign of the growing cultural acceptance of therapies once considered on the fringe of health care, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is undergoing a name change. A Congressional mandate directs the Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to change its name to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

As announced by the National Institutes of Health on December 14, 2014, the new name is a more accurate reflection of the mission at NCCIH, which remains unchanged. The Center will continue its work as the federal government’s lead agency responsible for defining and researching complementary and integrative therapies, and their role in improving health and wellbeing.

There has been an ongoing debate about what to call the collection of therapies and providers of therapies that fall outside of Western conventional medical care. Commonly referred to as complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, these therapies include acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, nutritional supplements, meditation, relaxation and yoga. The CAM label, however, has been controversial among this community of providers. CAM providers do not use pharmaceuticals, commonly associated with “medicine” and the philosophy of CAM has traditionally focused on whole person health and wellness – not the system of medicine itself.

In addition, the majority of patients do not use CAM therapies as an alternative to conventional medicine. Instead, they report using CAM based on past positive experience and preferences, and in addition or complementary to conventional medicine. To better meet patients’ needs in this regard, the patient centered healthcare movement has put increasing pressure on health care systems to provide a wider range of services delivered by teams of various provider types.

The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 20,500 health care organizations, has also recently revised its pain management standards to include chiropractic, acupuncture and massage therapy. The recommendation by this independent organization provides further evidence of the value that complementary and integrative health care brings to patients suffering from pain. It also reflects a growing body of research supporting the safety and effectiveness of these therapies.

Acupuncture and massage are increasingly being used for pain management within hospital settings, and chiropractic is being tapped to address back and neck pain in rehabilitation and physical medicine centers across the country. Integrative heath centers that offer mindfulness based stress reduction, healing touch or yoga have become prominent brand differentiators in the healthcare marketplace. In response to patient demand, healthcare systems are reinventing themselves with an eye toward enhanced integration and collaboration across healthcare disciplines.

The Center for Healthcare Innovation and Policy at Northwestern Health Sciences University has been closely following this important shift in thinking and also believes that the term “integrative health” and integrative health care more accurately reflects the new landscape that is evolving for the benefit of patients. The University also has graduates practicing within large healthcare systems, alongside medical physicians and other mainstream providers, and we predict this trend to accelerate in the future.

A long range goal of NCCIH is to enable patients, providers and healthcare systems to make better evidence-based decisions on how to best use complementary and integrative therapies. NCCIH administers approximately $120 million annually in research grants to study mind and body interventions, natural products, and how these are used in the “real world.” The agency also funds programs to disseminate research, increase the use of research by complementary and integrative health care providers, and improve the field’s capacity to conduct rigorous research.

Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) has received several research grants from the Center, including one to increase the amount of research education for students and faculty at the University. Another widely publicized study conducted at NWHSU showed that chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy and home exercise with advice were superior to medication for improving acute neck pain.

The new name of NCCIH in 2015 marks the third title change for the organization at the NIH. In 1991, Congress passed legislation funding the Office of Alternative Medicine within the NIH. In 1998, the Office was elevated to the status of a Center at NIH, becoming the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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