Feb 22, 2002
By Todd Zwillich
WASHINGTON, Reuters Health
Consumers and their doctors need the government's help in gaining access to unbiased information and better research about alternative medicines and treatments, members of a presidential advisory commission said Friday.
The commission is drafting recommendations and a report that will be finalized and sent to Congress and the White House in early March. Members said they are preparing to call for a broad package of policy changes at both the federal and state levels designed to improve the quality of alternative medicine, which is used by millions of Americans.
Draft recommendations nearing final approval call on the federal government to provide more money for controlled studies designed to tell if--and in which patients--alternative therapies work. Experts want Congress to boost funds for the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.
The center, which is set to spend $105 million this year, funds research on many areas falling under the vast umbrella of alternative and complementary medicine, including acupuncture, stress reduction, lifestyle management and herbal medicine. A 1998 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that 42% of Americans use alternative treatments regularly in their healthcare.
"All of these approaches should be researched and should be studied to determine if they are safe and effective," said Dr. James S. Gordon, who chairs the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy.
The commission was established in March 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton.
Gordon said that research into the safety and efficacy of alternative therapies should be "of neither a higher bar nor a lower bar" than research backing up traditional drugs and treatments. Critics of alternative medicine have long decried federal rules that allow companies to sell vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies with no proof that they benefit health.
Detractors have also criticized government authorities like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for not doing more to keep track of adverse events associated with some supplements on the market. The commission is also set to recommend that the FDA strengthen its adverse events reporting regimen and that supplement companies voluntarily do more to report possible side effects and to make sure that ingredients advertised "on the label is what's actually in the bottle," Gordon said.
Commissioners said they want to build confidence in alternative medicine by asking state medical boards to consider rules requiring practitioners to post their credentials and education history in their clinics. Draft recommendations also call on medical schools to offer courses in alternative medicine designed to familiarize physicians with the growing field.
"If their doctor isn't familiar with it at all, chances are that the patients won't talk to them about it," said Dr. Dean Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco and a member of the commission.
Members also said that their recommendations would stress the need for a comprehensive database of information on alternative medicine that is easily accessible to consumers and their physicians. Gordon said that consumers spend billions of dollars on alternative therapies each year with little fact-based knowledge of which ones are effective.
"People just don't have access to authoritative information from an unbiased source," he said. "A lot of the information that's being purveyed is being purveyed by people who have something to gain, who have products to sell."
The commission's recommendations will go to Bush administration health officials, who have begun stressing disease prevention and healthy lifestyles as a strategy for sparing the nation from rising healthcare costs. At the same time, the administration has shifted much of its focus to girding the nation against bioterrorism.
Some observers questioned whether a Republican administration with terrorism-era priorities would be willing to embrace the recommendations of a panel commissioned by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
"I think the question of which administration
started this commission will have an impact on how the report is used,"
said David C. Matteson, the public affairs director at Bastyr University,
a natural health and alternative medicine school in Kenmore, Washington.
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