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In biomedical research, is the "gold standard" of controlled studies that analyze individual therapies the only way to get trustworthy results? That question is central to what has arguably become America's most profound public health development: the boom in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
That question also was pondered frequently at the fourth annual Comprehensive Cancer Care Conference recently in Arlington, Va. Cosponsored by the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, the meeting drew an audience of more than 1,200 to hear about the inroads CAM is forging, and the roadblocks it is encountering, en route to the goal of acceptance by mainstream science.
"The reason there is as much interest in complementary medicine as there is, is not because of the science," according to James S. Gordon, a professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. "The moving force has been us." He means the general public and practitioners have led the push. In terms of government-funded CAM research, Gordon believes that cancer is where the best progress has been made to date.
CAM's popularity is widespread, according to most estimates. For example, an oft-cited paper based on a national telephone survey of 2,055 adult Americans places CAM use at 42 percent. (1) This extrapolates to 83 million people, who spend $27 billion out-of-pocket on such therapies. However, at least one large survey disputes such figures. A paper based on a written …