When considering complementary and alternative therapies, know how to evaluate the reliability of online sources and how to interpret clinical trial results.
- It is important to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies to find the best holistic approach for your health.
- To determine the reliability of a therapy, use reputable online sites and search for research studies on sites such as PubMed.
- Look at the type of study, publisher and author, the objectivity of the source, the number of citations a study has received, whether it is peer reviewed, and its resource list.
- Clinical trials provide scientific data that reports the effectiveness of holistic medicine therapies and are a good source of information.
- When evaluating alternative therapies, avoid sources and case studies that claim to have a cure for a chronic condition, use persuasive language, misrepresent results, or use untrustworthy resources.
Many people turn to complementary and alternative medicine therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, and behavioral therapy, to manage a health condition. Often also known as integrative medicine, the Pew Research Center reports that 50% of American adults have turned to complementary medicine at some point in their lives, with three out of ten adults using a combination of traditional and complementary medicine to improve their well-being.
While there is no doubt that holistic medicine provides wellness benefits, evaluating the efficacy and trustworthiness of complementary treatments can be a difficult task.
It is vital to learn how to evaluate complementary medicine therapy to ensure you choose a safe alternative therapy that helps you meet your wellness goals.
How to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies
There are several actions you can take to evaluate the effectiveness of complementary therapies. If you are considering visiting an herbalist for IBS, an acupuncturist for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or a massage therapist to reduce muscle tension, it is important to research the therapy itself to judge whether the alternative practice is safe and effective for your specific condition.
Before you undergo a holistic remedy, take time to research the therapy method. Familiarize yourself with how the treatment process works and how outcomes are measured. Look for trustworthy sources that detail the effectiveness of the therapy through scientific evidence, peer-reviewed research, and clinical trials.
While performing this research, it’s also helpful to keep in mind the limitations of research on complementary medicine therapy. Many holistic approaches promote health improvements that can be difficult to measure with facts and figures.
Finding trustworthy online sources
Assessing trustworthiness of a source is one of the most important aspects of evaluating an alternative medicine therapy. It’s vital to get truthful information about these therapies, but finding reliable, trustworthy sources is more difficult than it might seem.
To determine if the source you are accessing is reliable, keep the following points in mind. They can indicate whether the information presented is objective, or if it’s potentially skewed to show specific results.
When researching a therapy online, be sure you refer only to highly regarded sources. Sites like WebMD and Healthline are good places to start. Also try organizations, “dot orgs,” that specialize in your condition. Major medical centers like Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins are also good sources, as are many university sites.
The content on Soundry contains only verified sources and is checked by medical reviewers.
Complementary and alternative therapies are becoming more mainstream, and many of these sites will have reference lists that will give you a good jumping-off point for further reading.
Evaluating complementary and alternative medicine research studies
PubMed is a good place to start to find reliable information about a complementary or alternative therapy. It’s easy to search, and includes a timeline slider so you can look for the most recent information.
When you find a promising study, pay attention to the type of study, the number of citations it has received, the objectivity of the source, whether it’s peer reviewed, and the sources on its resource list.
Type of study
You’ll run across a number of study types in PubMed, but you can filter for the types you want to see. Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses compile and evaluate data from a number of studies, ranging from a few to hundreds.
There are other study types, as well, but starting with these three will serve you well.
Publisher and author
In a trustworthy resource, neither the author nor the publisher should have any connection to a service or product related to the therapy they’re writing about.
For example, if you’re reading an article about the effectiveness of acupuncture written by an acupuncture needle manufacturing company, the results may be biased. This source would not be as reliable as a journal article written by an independent academic researcher.
An important indication of source validity is the number of researchers who have cited it in later works. In PubMed, you can find this information on the right-hand side of the screen or at the bottom of the article.
Sources cited by peer-reviewed articles, case studies, and medical journals are generally considered reliable. A high number of citations indicates that writers and researchers in the field consider the study data credible enough to use for their own research.
Reliable articles are written in an objective tone and provide factual data to back up their conclusions. Objective sources don’t express opinions but allow the research results to speak for themselves. Objective sources also avoid using persuasive language or wild claims about the ability of a complementary medicine therapy to cure or heal.
When reading an objective source, you should feel informed enough to draw your own conclusions and perform more research until you’re satisfied.
In general, if a source is peer-reviewed, it is considered more trustworthy than one that isn’t. The purpose of the peer review process is to ensure that writers adhere to accepted codes within their discipline and don’t make false claims.
While the peer review process isn’t failproof, it remains one way that scientific articles are vetted before being posted in upstanding publications.
A resource list appears at the end of an online or published source and contains the sources that the researchers used to write the article. One marker of a credible source is that it includes a substantial resource list at the end.
You should be able to view these resources on your own to assess whether they are trustworthy. If you find a piece that lists non-trustworthy resources, then the piece itself is probably not reliable.
Clinical trials: How to interpret complementary and alternative medicine study results
Understanding how clinical trials work can help you make a smart decision about a complementary therapy.
Clinical trials use the scientific method to study holistic remedies and treatments and review whether the results are beneficial to the trial participants. They then report their results, usually in an academic journal.
Once you locate a promising study or journal article, you need to effectively interpret the results to understand how the complementary medicine therapy may benefit you. Here are some questions you should ask as you read:
- How is this treatment different from traditional medicine for my condition?
- What organization sponsored the trial?
- Do any of the researchers have a conflict of interest? Reputable studies will reveal any that exist.
- Who approved and reviewed the study?
- How old is the study? You want to find the most recent evidence available.
- Do the results conflict with previously published research? If so, do the researchers explain why?
- What are the limitations of the study? High-quality studies will always mention these. Examples you might run into: The study group was small, it only included data from a single clinic or hospital, participants weren’t diverse enough to draw reliable conclusions, and many others.
As you read and interpret the clinical trial results, keep these questions in mind. None of these factors means that a study is necessarily faulty, but the answers can help you decide if you should search for more information.
Look for red flags
That said, there are red flags to look for that do indicate that a study is faulty. Any of these should cause you to question the validity of the results. Be wary of any articles, case studies, or other resources that:
- Claim a therapy will heal or cure you
- Use aggressively persuasive language
- Use vague terminology rather than factual terms
- Quote unverifiable data or statistics
- Is sponsored or published by an entity with a financial interest in the treatment
- Provides misleading interpretations of study results
- Directly contradicts accepted medical conclusions
Trust your own judgment
Evaluating complementary and alternative medicine therapy is an important step toward choosing the right holistic treatment for your health concerns. By equipping yourself with the skills to effectively evaluate the trustworthiness of sources and find and interpret research studies, you can discover which alternative therapies and holistic remedies will work best for you.
Choosing the right complementary or alternative practitioner may feel challenging. Let Bright Belly be your ally on your way to better holistic health. Follow our blog for more information on complementary and alternative therapies, and visit our provider directory to find a practitioner near you.