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Evidence-Based Alternative Medicine?

The validity of evidence-based medicine (EBM) is the subject of ongoing controversy. The EBM movement has proposed a "hierarchy of evidence," according to which randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and meta-analyses of RCTs provide the most reliable evidence concerning the efficacy of medical interventions. The evaluation of alternative medicine therapies highlights problems with the EBM hierarchy. Alternative medical researchers—like those in mainstream medicine—wish to evaluate their therapies using methods that are rigorous and that are consistent with their philosophies of medicine and healing. These investigators have three ways to relate their work to EBM. They can accept the EBM hierarchy and carry out RCTs when possible; they can accept the EBM standards but argue that the special characteristics of alternative medicine warrant the acceptance of "lower" forms of evidence; or they can challenge the EBM approach and work to develop new research designs and new standards of evidence that reflect their approach to medical care. For several reasons, this last option is preferable. First, it will best meet the needs of alternative medicine practitioners. Moreover, because similar problems beset the evaluation of mainstream medical therapies, reevaluation of standards of evidence will benefit everyone in the medical community—including, most importantly, patients.

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