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The Importance of Epidemiology to NCCIH

December 04, 2018
Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Richard Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Lead Epidemiologist
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
View Dr. Nahin's biographical sketch

Studying patterns and outcomes in large groups of people over extended periods of time is critical to determining the roles of mind and body approaches and natural products in Americans’ health and health care, as well as understanding trends in the prevalence and treatment of pain. As lead epidemiologist for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), I am fortunate to oversee a program responsible for design, implementation, and analyses of surveys that further understanding of both complementary health approaches and chronic pain. The NCCIH epidemiology group examines data sets that can be used to glean answers to compelling, unresolved research questions concerning both areas.

Our work makes use of both quantitative and qualitative research to explore topics as varied as prevalence, costs, and reasons for use of complementary health approaches. Qualitative studies take advantage of interviews and focus groups to develop valid questionnaires exploring systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. They also serve as valuable additions to experimental and observational research examining the impact of chronic pain on a person’s life.  

Among the most prominent activities of the NCCIH epidemiology group is the creation and analysis of a supplement to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the main source of information on Americans’ health, every 5 years. In partnership with the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCCIH develops a complementary health questionnaire to identify trends in Americans’ use of specific practices. The 2017 survey, for example, showed that the number of adults and children using yoga and meditation has significantly increased over previous years and that use of chiropractic care has increased modestly for adults and held steady for children.

Beyond the NHIS, the NCCIH epidemiology group collaborates on several other studies. In partnership with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, we use the Medical Panel Expenditure Survey to identify 18-year trends in pain prevalence and health care use specifically for pain management. In addition, the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, another project of the NCHS, allows us to measure the use of complementary health approaches in physician offices. We also participate in intramural studies at the NIH Clinical Center, from interviewing fibromyalgia patients about experimental pain ratings to conducting focus groups with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) patients about postexertional malaise.

There is much to learn about health and health care by studying trends in populations. I encourage you to take a look at the surveys I mentioned above and learn more about how we are using them to better understand the use of complementary health approaches in the United States. In addition, if you or someone you know is interested in joining our team, please check out our current job opening for an epidemiologist to work with us onsite. 

•    View the posting for the epidemiologist job opening.


Comments are now closed for this post.

The epidemiological work being conducted by Drs Nahin and Weber at NCCIH is game changing.  Great work!!

  • Does your department or NCCIH have volunteer positions for consumer advocates to come to meetings in person or on conference calls to help provide a public voice in the great work you all do?   At one time in the past I served on two consumer groups at  NCI. 

@Alan Kaye Thanks for your interest.  While we don’t have volunteer positions, the public is always welcome to attend the Open Session of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Integrative Health (NACCIH) meetings which occur quarterly. The next NACCIH meeting is February 8, 2019.

I am a sexagenarian female college graduate performance artist and writer who was injured on the job with resultant chronic headaches. I do not like to take painkiller medications and elect therapy in lieu of medication as mode of healing. I read your entity documents in order to learn more about this medical law related matter. Keep up the good work

I would like to see NCCIH do research on “inflammatory” and “anti-inflammatory” foods.  1.  Is there such a thing as inflammatory or anti-inflammatory foods?  2.  Is there a standard, verified method to test and classify foods as inflammatory or anti-inflammatory (presumably ranging from very inflammatory to neutral to very anti-inflammatory)?  What is the method?  Where is the scientific basis for it described (e.g., which peer-reviewed papers)?  I know the Dietary Inflammatory Index has been used in many epidemiologic studies, but it mainly lists nutrients, not whole foods.  3. I think there needs to be more epidemiologic and medical research into whether the inflammatory status of foods increases or decreases certain diseases or conditions, especially auto-immune conditions and chronic inflammatory conditions.  4. I suspect there are many more auto-immune conditions that exist but are more rare than the currently identified diseases, but more research needs to be done to identify them.  Thank you.

Thanks for the suggestion @WLBoal . To learn more about our research portfolio and the direction of our research please see our latest strategic plan, “2016 Strategic Plan: Exploring the Science of Complementary and Integrative Health”:

I’m looking for help for what appears to me to be an epidemic of Wegener’s Granulomatosis with Polyangiits. I live in Whitesville, Kentucky- population 552. Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis according my research affects 3 people in 100,000. We have 3 physician diagnosed cases that I know of in our small communtiy. The numbers don’t add up. I have already contacted the local head of epidemiology of our Health Department, and the CDC to no avail. The reason for persistance in finding the source is, my two sons have both paternal and maternal grandfathers with diagnosed GPA. If there is something here that I can elimimate to improve my son’s prevention of getting GPA, I want to know about.I suspect it is enviromental. But what is it in the enviroment that is the source? I am willing to leap bounds to find a solution. Please help!

This page last modified December 04, 2018