Early findings suggest complementary therapies can help young patients feel better

Research at work in hospitals – Complementary therapies

Sunita VohraWhen families ask questions about complementary medicine, most doctors don’t have good answers to give them. “There’s a tremendous gap between use and evidence,” says Dr. Sunita Vohra, who is an internationally recognized expert in the field. “When parents ask questions, such as ‘Does it work? Is it safe?’, we want to have better information than ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’m not sure,’ which is not satisfying to anyone.”

Complementary therapies can include everything from herbal remedies to naturopathy, acupressure, acupuncture, massage and Reiki. Despite the lack of research, many families decide to use complementary therapies, often mixing them with prescription medicines without knowing how they will impact one another. According to Dr. Vohra, parents of 70 per cent of the patients with serious chronic or recurrent illnesses at the Stollery Children’s Hospital are seeking complementary therapies. “Parents are looking for whatever they can do to try and help their children — and that’s understandable.”

As a start to addressing this research gap, Dr. Vohra, a pediatrician and clinician scientist, is currently heading Canada’s first clinical trial into pediatric integrative medicine (PIM) for hospitalized children. For the past two years, she and her team have worked with three divisions at the Stollery: cardiology, oncology and general pediatrics. The team is exploring whether complementary therapies can help young patients cope with pain, anxiety, or nausea. Conventional medicines for these problems often cause drowsiness, says Dr. Vohra. “It is reasonable for patients to want to feel better — and to be awake while doing so!”

Along with their normal hospital care, children and their families have the option of adding acupuncture, acupressure, massage therapy, or Reiki. Dr. Vohra expects the study will eventually involve about 900 patients, ranging in age from newborns to teens. 

Dr. Vohra is cautiously optimistic about the preliminary results. “Some of the early qualitative findings suggest that children and parents do find integrative therapies helpful — and they appreciate the choices they are offered, as well as the care they receive at the Stollery,” she says.
Dr. Vohra hopes her study will bring some needed balance to a field, which tends to attract polarized responses. “At one end, you have some clinicians and health care practitioners who say, ‘I don’t need to know, because none of that stuff works,’ ” she says. “At the other end, some people say, ‘Isn’t it lovely, isn’t it wonderful.’ They embrace it without question. Both of these positions are, from my perspective, quite dangerous.”
The subject is best approached from the middle, says Dr. Vohra. “We don’t assume it’s all good or all bad. We try to sort things out one therapy and one child at a time, so we can have a better idea of what’s effective for whom.”
Dr. Vohra’s research study received research coordination and data management support services from WCHRI through the generous support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.