Project led by UW–Madison’s Goldberg aims to increase scientific understanding of alternative health treatments

By Laurel White

As complementary and integrative health treatments like mindfulness, acupuncture, and chiropractic care continue to grow in popularity, a new project led by a School of Education faculty member aims to increase understanding of how well those treatments work. 

The project, recently funded by a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, will create a database of clinical trials testing the treatments, produce meta-analyses and reviews of those trials, and provide training to health researchers on how to produce similarly rigorous reviews.  

Simon Goldberg

Simon Goldberg, associate professor in the School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology and core faculty member at the Center for Healthy Minds, will lead the project, along with colleagues at Brown University. Goldberg says the five-year project aims to increase understanding of treatments that are becoming more popular — and more studied. 

“I think a lot of us might be intrigued by alternative health approaches, but it’s hard to know who to trust, what approaches have scientific backing, and what’s just being sold to us,” he says. 

Goldberg says the project, called the Mindfulness and Integrative Health Data Network (MINDNET), will pull back the veil on how well a number of complementary and integrative health treatments work: how they are helpful, what they are helpful for, where the evidence is clear, and where it isn’t. He envisions a wide-ranging audience for the work, from practicing clinicians to health insurance companies, policymakers, and individuals. 

“Most of us don’t read the scientific literature,” Goldberg says. “This project is aimed at making the literature available to people so they can make informed decisions.” 

James Pustejovsky, associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, will serve as a co-investigator and consultant on the project. Pustejovsky is a statistician and expert in drafting meta-analyses and evidence synthesis.  

James Pustejovsky

UW–Madison colleagues David Rakel and Richard Davidson are also supporting the effort. Rakel is a professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the director of the UW–Madison Osher Center for Integrative Health. Davidson is the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds.

Shufang Sun, an assistant professor at Brown University and another colleague on the project, is an alumna of the School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology.

Goldberg notes that he and his colleagues have a huge number of complementary and integrative health treatments to choose from for their work. In addition to mindfulness, acupuncture, and chiropractic care, other potential areas of inquiry include yoga, tai chi, and qigong. They will narrow down their review by interviewing stakeholders, including health care organization representatives, medical researchers, and patients, about their top interests.

Goldberg says he hopes MINDNET continues to flourish and provide scientific and public usefulness long after this initial, five-year grant period.

“Our hope is that this is the beginning of building a research network really focused on this area that will sustain and be of service to the whole field,” he says.

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