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“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Dr Carl Sagan, American astronomer, writer and scientist. 1934–1996
Planning and managing a research project can seem like a daunting undertaking, especially as we have little exposure to the techniques required for success during our professional training. It would be tempting to leave the research to those who find their career paths progressing into the world of laboratories and clinical trials. This seems a shame as there may be many of us who could provide interesting and important contributions, if we had a little help to start us off! With rising use of complementary and alternative treatments by the public, and little in the way of good clinical evidence to support, or indeed, fund it, it seems like a good time to encourage more professionals and practitioners to discover their ‘inner scientist’, and learn the art of a conducting a good and fruitful research project.
So where do we start? Clinical Research In Complementary and Integrative Medicine, A Practical Training Book (CM Witt, K Linde) is a book written for this very purpose. The authors are experienced researchers, and having also established their own summer research training course in 2007, are ideally placed to educate us on this subject. This is neatly done in a book of 185 pages, beginning with a glossary and introduction. This is followed by 11 chapters dividing the information into bite-sized, digestible chunks of basic knowledge, a step-by-step guide to how to successfully plan, manage, analyse and publish a clinical study, and introductions to research methods helping researchers put the results of the study into a broader context. Also, for the more computer literate there is included pin-code-protected online access to the complete contents and illustrations in the book. This requires registration with Elsevier, no mean feat given the web-page is in German!
The introduction provides a survey of the different terms used in complementary alternative medicine (CAM) and how these differ, followed by an overview of the importance of, and necessity for, good clinical research.
The ‘meat’ of the book starts in chapters 2 and 3. Here the authors provide the basic information on the fundamentals of clinical research. This is a well-written section which provides the reader with a thorough overview of the ‘basics’. For most of us, this may be a useful revision of the terminology commonly used, the differences between different types of trials and the commonly encountered problems and pitfalls. Throughout, the authors are keen to illustrate the text with clear graphics, tables and examples, which succeed in clarifying the details. While the more experienced researcher may find the information here a little basic, the novice will undoubtedly get a good grasp of the salient points needed to get started. Important ‘take-home’ messages are clearly highlighted in summary boxes throughout, making information easily accessible again if required. The chapter describing basic statistics, again, makes clear a tricky area of research. The authors are quick to advise that a statistician should be involved early on in any research project and suggest that a more detailed textbook on statistics may be needed. However, as an introduction, this provides a very comprehensive description of statistical analysis involved in research.
Having digested the first section of the book, those inspired to go on to produce some high quality research now have the second section of the book to instruct them along their way. Chapters 4–7 take the reader through planning a study, managing their data, analysing the data and publication, all fundamentally important for success. The chapters are well written and again, reinforced with examples of different types of trials and case studies, to clarify the points throughout. These examples highlight even the most basic but important considerations, such as how to formulate a research question, where to go to ensure it has not already been studied, on to designing and performing the correct type of trial and considerations regarding data management and analysis. Details of staffing and financing studies are also described, alongside important issues relating to consent, population selection and ethical considerations. Statistical analysis of data is well illustrated with case studies. The information provided about publication is excellent, and offers advice and information to maximise the chance of successful acceptance of a project. All very motivating!
Chapters 8–10 describe qualitative research, economic research and case studies. The chapters are clear in describing the terminology and methodology, but not so detailed in providing much instruction on how to perform these types of studies. The authors state that qualitative studies may be best placed with the experienced researcher, hence the minimal detail. The economic studies chapter deals more with the terminology involved in health economics, and less with conducting this type of analysis. This may prove a drawback for those more interested in learning how to research the cost analysis of CAM, perhaps to apply for funding for their practice. Chapter 10 details the ‘fors and againsts’ of the single case study (case reports) and provides good arguments both for and against the use of single case studies in providing evidence for the effectiveness of CAM. A final chapter gives brief details about other types of trials which can be used, which are not covered in any great detail elsewhere in the book.
All in all I would highly recommend this book for those keen to participate in clinical research but are unsure where to start, as it is a good source of information. It is clear and concise, providing a comprehensive overview of the basic knowledge needed to begin, and gives a very thorough outline for managing a research project from planning to publication. It makes the process seem achievable and it provides a motivating read which might result in an increase in useful published clinical studies in CAM. It seems applicable to many areas of research, and not limited to providing a guide just for potential CAM projects. There may be mixed opinions among those readers already experienced in research, with some finding they still learn much from the information and wealth of experience that the authors share with us, and others deciding there is little to be gained from its pages. Potential qualitative researchers, and those more interested in health economic studies may find more detailed information elsewhere, as this book is heavily weighted towards the quantitative approach.
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
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