Alternative or complementary medicine treatments should be held to the same standards as conventional medicine, suggests a new report conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences.
The Institute's 327-page report recommends tougher oversight of dietary supplements.
Among several other actions, the report asks Congress to amend the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which classifies dietary supplements as foods instead of drugs, and doesn't require the manufacturers to conduct product efficacy or safety tests on these supplements.
"Health professionals and patients should have sufficient information about safety and efficacy to take advantage of all useful therapies...conventional and complementary and alternative," says Dr. Stuart Bondurant, executive dean at Georgetown University Medical Center, and chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
The committee believes that the same research principles and standards for showing effectiveness should apply to these types of treatments.
"Because evidence is a key element of prudent decision-making, we need to change the current regulation of dietary supplements in this country to encourage more studies of these widely used products to ensure their quality," Bondurant adds.
Judy Blatman, a spokeswoman for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement industry trade group, says the organization does not believe that DSHEA needs amending.
"We believe DSHEA is an appropriate law for the dietary industry. By and large, dietary supplements are safe," Blatman says.
According to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, "complementary” refers to techniques that are used in conjunction with conventional medicine.
Alternative" describes similar techniques that are used in place of conventional treatments.
Among techniques that are classified as alternative or complementary are massage therapy, homeopathic medicine, meditation and aromatherapy
Choosing The Alternative
The report was written to help the NIH develop research methods and set priorities for evaluating standards for complementary or alternative treatments.
The use of herbal products jumped 380% from 1990 to 1997, according to the panel, and one in five Americans now takes at least one dietary supplement.
Bondurant and other experts who were involved in the report also recommend that more complementary and alternative medicine practitioners be trained as researchers so they could conduct scientific studies on the treatments they provide.
However, the intent "is not to medicalize" complementary and alternative medicine, Bondurant adds.
What Doctors Say
While fewer than 40% of Americans say they tell their primary-care doctors that they use alternative or complementary techniques to treat their medical conditions, more than half of doctors say they would encourage patients to talk to them about it. In fact, those doctors would actually refer them for alternative treatments if warranted.