The state of complementary and alternative medicine research in Canada highlighted at First National Research Symposium

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Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) encompasses that “group of diverse medical and health care systems, therapies and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine” (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), such as herbal products, meditation and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Although precise figures representing the prevalence of CAM use in Canada are difficult to find, it is well documented that CAM use in the general population is high. A survey published in 2004 by the US Department of Health and Human Services indicated that CAM is most often used to treat back, neck and joint pain, head or chest colds, and anxiety or depression. CAM helps people to improve their quality of life, strengthen their immune system and generally emphasizes a healthy lifestyle, which may decrease hospitalizations in CAM users. Within the hospital setting, integrative health care programs that combine both conventional and CAM treatments are slowly being established; however these programs need to be properly evaluated, in order to ensure the most effective treatments are being offered in a cost effective manner and in a manner that respects the patient’s choice. The health care community, researchers and the government have expressed concerns that the growing consumer demand for, and use of, CAM does not parallel the amount of research into the safety and effectiveness of these products and therapies, (though this much needed research is coming).

In order to address the need for a wide variety of CAM research, Dr. Heather Boon, a medical sociologist at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Marja Verhoef, a social scientist and epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, have launched the Canadian Interdisciplinary Network for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research (IN-CAM). Drs. Boon and Verhoef believe that the launch of IN-CAM represents a step towards the coordinated, interdisciplinary collaborative effort that is needed to address the many gaps in CAM research.

Launched in January 2004, IN-CAM has now been an active research network for one year. In 2004, IN-CAM’s efforts were focused towards developing the network infrastructure, promoting knowledge transfer and building research capacity (the ability to do research). To this end, IN-CAM has launched a web site (www.incamresearch.ca) that offers a searchable member database through which members may locate and contact one another for the purpose of research collaboration. The web site also hosts information regarding CAM research funding, research education and CAM research related events and training opportunities. IN-CAM also offers a bi-monthly bulletin and bi-weekly newsflashes (emails) to communicate information regarding CAM research activities across Canada and internationally and hosts annual graduate studentship and research project funding competitions.

The highlight of 2004 was IN-CAM’s first Annual Research Symposium: Building Research Capacity and Networking in Canada, that was held in Toronto, Ontario. The main objectives of the symposium were to: 1) enhance networking among Canadians interested in CAM research; 2) facilitate high quality health services and policy CAM research; 3) involve IN-CAM members in the building of the network so that it meets their needs; and 4) celebrate the launch of IN-CAM. Over 140 researchers, practitioners, students, educators, and policy advisors from across Canada, as well as internationally, attended this event.

Keynote addresses at the symposium were provided by Dr. Iris Bell, University of Arizona; Dr. Adrian Sandler, University of Arizona; Dr. Merrijoy Kelner, University of Toronto; and Dr. Pierre Haddad, Université de Montréal. Dr. Bell discussed the challenges facing the CAM research community regarding appropriate research outcomes in the framework of whole systems research. Dr. Sandler focused on the placebo effect in pediatric CAM research and highlighted some of his personal research results regarding autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Through discussion of her research regarding the professionalization of CAM practitioners, Dr. Kelner highlighted some of the challenges practitioners are facing as they strive for self-regulatory status and identified some of the strategies they are using as they try to fit into the healthcare system in Ontario. Dr. Haddad discussed his research into anti-diabetic plants used by the Cree Nation in Northern Quebec. Through a New Emerging Team (NET) grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Dr. Haddad is leading, first, an ethnobotanical survey to identify native plants with anti-diabetic potential and second, a basic science research program to standardize such plants for eventual human use.