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Integrated oncology is en vogue, but is it useful?

Integrated or integrative oncology is ‘en vogue’ – but is it useful? If we asked a proponent of this approach, we are likely to be referred to survey data suggesting that many cancer patients like it, are satisfied with it, would recommend it etc. But what about some harder evidence? The short answer to this question is that precious few scientific tests currently exist for integrative medicine.

All the more reason to applaud this new RCT evaluating the efficacy of integrated medicine for patients with ovarian cancer1. The researchers randomized 43 patients into two groups. One received a treatment package consisting of hypnotherapy, massage and healing touch, with each cycle of chemotherapy. The control group received only chemotherapy. Follow-up was to the end of the six-month cycle, and six months after chemotherapy. The main outcome measure was quality of life.

The results show no differences in outcomes between the two groups. In particular, the tested integrative approach failed to improve quality of life. Normally one would have assumed that any treatment that conveys more attention, compassion, empathy etc would have a beneficial effect, if only via a placebo-response. The absence of such a result should, in my view, make us think critically about the value of integrative medicine. Could it be that it is more hype than healing?

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

Reference List

  (1)   Judson PL, Dickson EL, Argenta PA, Xiong Y, Geller MA, Carson LF et al. A prospective randomised trial of integrative medicine for women with ovarian cancer. Gynecol Oncol 2011; 123(2011):346-350.