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NIH Consensus Statement

November 3-5, 1997

What are the directions for future research?

The incorporation of any new clinical intervention into accepted practice faces more scrutiny now than ever before. The demands of evidence-based medicine, outcomes research, managed care systems of health care delivery, and a plethora of therapeutic choices makes the acceptance of new treatments an arduous process. The difficulties are accentuated when the treatment is based on theories unfamiliar to Western medicine and its practitioners. It is important, therefore, that the evaluation of acupuncture for the treatment of specific conditions be carried out carefully, using designs which can withstand rigorous scrutiny. In order to further the evaluation of the role of acupuncture in the management of various conditions, the following general areas for future research are suggested.

What are the demographics and patterns of use of acupuncture in the U.S. and other countries?

There is currently limited information on basic questions such as who uses acupuncture, for what indications is acupuncture most commonly sought, what variations in experience and techniques used exist among acupuncture practitioners, and whether there are differences in these patterns by geography or ethnic group. Descriptive epidemiologic studies can provide insight into these and other questions. This information can in turn be used to guide future research and to identify areas of greatest public health concern.

Can the efficacy of acupuncture for various conditions for which it is used or for which it shows promise be demonstrated?

Relatively few high-quality, randomized, controlled trials have been published on the effects of acupuncture. Such studies should be designed in a rigorous manner to allow evaluation of the effectiveness of acupuncture. Such studies should include experienced acupuncture practitioners in order to design and deliver appropriate interventions. Emphasis should be placed on studies that examine acupuncture as used in clinical practice, and that respect the theoretical basis for acupuncture therapy.

Although randomized controlled trials provide a strong basis for inferring causality, other study designs such as used in clinical epidemiology or outcomes research can also provide important insights regarding the usefulness of acupuncture for various conditions. There have been few such studies in the acupuncture literature.

Do different theoretical bases for acupuncture result in different treatment outcomes?

Competing theoretical orientations (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, French) currently exist that might predict divergent therapeutic approaches (i.e., the use of different acupuncture points). Research projects should be designed to assess the relative merit of these divergent approaches, as well to compare these systems with treatment programs using fixed acupuncture points.

In order to fully assess the efficacy of acupuncture, studies should be designed to examine not only fixed acupuncture points, but also the Eastern medical systems that provide the foundation for acupuncture therapy, including the choice of points. In addition to assessing the effect of acupuncture in context, this would also provide the opportunity to determine if Eastern medical theories predict more effective acupuncture points.

What areas of public policy research can provide guidance for the integration of acupuncture into today's health care system?

The incorporation of acupuncture as a treatment raises numerous questions of public policy. These include issues of access, cost-effectiveness, reimbursement by state, federal, and private payors, and training, licensure, and accreditation. These public policy issues must be founded on quality epidemiologic and demographic data and effectiveness research.

Can further insight into the biological basis for acupuncture be gained?

Mechanisms which provide a Western scientific explanation for some of the effects of acupuncture are beginning to emerge. This is encouraging, and may provide novel insights into neural, endocrine and other physiological processes. Research should be supported to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms involved, and such research may lead to improvements in treatment.

Does an organized energetic system exist in the human body that has clinical applications?

Although biochemical and physiologic studies have provided insight into some of the biologic effects of acupuncture, acupuncture practice is based on a very different model of energy balance. This theory might or might not provide new insights to medical research, but it deserves further attention because of its potential for elucidating the basis for acupuncture.

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This article was provided by U.S. National Institutes of Health. Visit NIH's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.