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NCCIH Research Blog

The Importance of Epidemiology to NCCIH

December 4, 2018

Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Lead Epidemiologist

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View 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.


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