New research methods needed to build evidence base on effectiveness of popular complementary therapies

New research is needed into the clinical and cost effectiveness of the complementary therapies used by millions of Britons every year to improve and manage their health. So says a report, Assessing complementary practice: Building consensus on appropriate research methods, by an independent advisory group convened by The King's Fund and chaired by Professor Dame Carol Black published today.

Despite the increasing popularity of treatments like acupuncture, reflexology and osteopathy, the evidence as to whether and how they work is scarce, leaving the practices open to criticism. But lack of agreement on the best methods to test the efficacy and effectiveness of complementary therapies has proved an obstacle to addressing this problem.

This report hopes to establish a consensus on the ways in which research might be conducted that both the conventional and complementary health care communities can support.

Explaining the need for different types of research when assessing complementary practice, Professor Dame Carol Black said:

'It has become widely accepted that a stronger evidence base is needed if we are to reach a better understanding of complementary practices and ensure greater confidence in their clinical and cost effectiveness. The challenge is to develop methods of research that allow us to assess the value of an approach that seeks to integrate the physical intervention, the personal context in which it is given, and non-specific effects that together comprise a particular therapy.'

Commenting on the importance of making progress in this area, The King's Fund Chief Executive, Niall Dickson said:

'Where complementary therapies are offered as part of the NHS it is imperative that those responsible for spending public money base their decisions on sound evidence. We need to understand more about the costs and benefits.

'Doctors and patients need robust evidence to make informed decisions – more research will play a vital role in showing what works and what does not, what is cost effective and what is not.'

The report is the result of debate between experts in the fields of medical research, funding and practice, and was conducted over the course of more than two years.

Read the report: Assessing complementary practice: Building consensus on appropriate research methods

Notes to editors: 

  1. The King’s Fund convened an independent advisory group with an interest in research, regulation, public involvement and  complementary practices to provide an analysis of the evidence presented and to identify areas of agreement. The group was chaired by Professor Dame Carol Black and the members were:
    • Harry Cayton, Chief Executive, Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence
    • Professor Adrian Eddleston, then Vice-Chairman, The King’s Fund
    • Professor George Lewith, Professor of Health Research, Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit, University of Southampton
    • Professor Stephen Holgate, MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology, University of Southampton
    • Professor Richard Lilford, Head of School of Health and Population Sciences, University of Birmingham
  2. The King's Fund also brought together researchers, academics, practitioners and funders of research to participate in a two-day consensus conference into complementary practice. The conference took place on 22–23 October 2007. The aim was to explore whether it was possible to reach a consensus to guide those who fund research, those who carry it out, those who commission and those who deliver, in the task of developing a robust evidence base. The report Assessing complementary practice: building consensus on appropriate research methods drew on contributions to that conference as well as subsequent discussion among the panel. It can be downloaded from The King’s Fund website.
  3. For further information or interviews, please contact The King’s Fund press and public affairs office on 020 7307 2585, 020 7307 2632 or 020 7307 2581. An ISDN line is available for interviews on 020 7637 0185.
  4. The King’s Fund is a charity that seeks to understand how the health system in England can be improved. Using that insight, we help to shape policy, transform services and bring about behaviour change. Our work includes research, analysis, leadership development and service improvement. We also offer a wide range of resources to help everyone working in health to share knowledge, learning and ideas.