At an acupuncture symposium in Baltimore, a National Institutes of Health official issued a "wake-up call to research agencies" yesterday, saying that medical institutions should be more willing to recognize nontraditional healing practices as legitimate topics for study.
"The activities of this office should not be ghettoized," said Dr. Joseph Jacobs, director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the NIH. "Research in alternative methods shouldn't just be done in my office."
While quoting philosophers and cracking jokes, Dr. Jacobs outlined his goals before about 225 physicians attending a conference on clinical uses of acupuncture. The four-day meeting at the Marriott Inner Harbor -- sponsored by the American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists, a national organization of physicians who practice acupuncture, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine -- ended yesterday.
Created last June by Congress, the Office of Alternative Medicine was allocated a $2 million budget for the investigation of nontraditional forms of medicine. This summer, it will begin awarding grants to unconventional healing practitioners for clinical study of their therapeutic effectiveness.
But the office's responsibilities extend beyond simply awarding grant money, Dr. Jacobs said. A primary goal is to form bridges between the world of traditional medicine and that of alternative methods of healing.
His office will do this by communicating with the alternative healing community, by policing the clinical studies it funds and by making sure that the appropriate institutes within the NIH evaluate the studies' findings, Dr. Jacobs said. The nontraditional healing community includes acupuncturists, chiropractors, herbalists, homeopaths and spiritual healers.
As part of what the director calls the " 'Star Trek' function," members of his office will conduct on-site visits to evaluate selected alternative healing methods. And some practitioners of alternative cancer or AIDS treatments will be invited to present their methods to the office.
It will hold studies of nontraditional healing to the same stringent criteria demanded of traditional, clinical research, he said.
However, the office also will take steps to ensure that the research methods respect "the paradigms of the alternative methods," he said. For example, "if one is researching the clinical benefit of traditional Indian healing, one must be sensitive to the religious aspects."
And part of his job, which he described as "making a square peg fit a round hole," will be to smooth out administrative difficulties encountered by researchers and practitioners unfamiliar with the complicated and exhaustive nature of grant proposals.
To counter potential problems, the Office of Alternative Medicine will offer workshops throughout the country to practitioners who need assistance applying for grants, he said.
Dr. Jacobs said his office will also act as a clearinghouse for practitioners of nontraditional medicine who need information about grants, and for doctors or patients seeking knowledge or references for alternative methods of treatment.