Research priorities in complementary medicine

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7044.1481c (Published 08 June 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:1481
  1. E Ernst,
  2. N C Abbot
  1. Chair in complementary medicine Research fellow Postgraduate Medical School, University of Exeter, Exeter EX2 4NT

    EDITOR,—Prioritising research in a climate of limited resources has become an important issue; complementary medicine is no exception in this respect.1 Yet it is sometimes claimed that complementary medicine is so fundamentally different, in its operation if not in its goals, from mainstream medicine that its investigation requires a different research agenda.2

    In an attempt to determine which priorities are most important to people practising and researching in complementary medicine, participants (from 11 countries) due to attend a recent international scientific meeting on complementary medicine (2nd annual symposium on complementary healthcare, University of Exeter) were sent a questionnaire by post and were asked to return it before the meeting. It consisted of 22 research questions, in strict alphabetical order, applicable to complementary medicine; participants were required to choose which they considered to be most important and to rank them accordingly. Of the 85 questionnaires sent out, 50 were returned by the cut off date. An overall weighted score was determined for each question, and two questions were without doubt the top priorities: how can we improve research methodologies? and, is a given therapy more effective than placebo, sham, or gold standard treatment? Clearly, for this international audience, the efficacy of therapy and how it can be determined had the greatest priority. The remaining three most highly rated questions (is a given therapy safe, are complementary therapists medically competent, and are diagnostic methods used validly in complementary medicine) illustrate the concern for patient safety.

    There was some discussion during the meeting that questions about “outcome studies” had not featured in the original questionnaire. Nevertheless, the clear preference of the group for the rigorous evaluation of treatments and their safety implies that mainstream and complementary research should have a similar focus, bearing in mind that existing methodologies may need to be adapted and refined for optimum use in complementary medicine.


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