There’s long been a rift between conventional medicine and alternative forms of healing.
Evidence has become profoundly important in Western society, and especially for the healthcare industry. Doctors rarely stray from the treatments recommended by guidelines that are recognized by regulators, governments, and insurers.
But integrative medicine recognizes the potential value of some forms of alternative healing, despite the fact that most lack evidence from the kinds of large clinical trials. Because they lack patents, these treatments rarely get the kind of funding that is needed to conduct these trials.
That’s where Dr. Richard Nahas comes in. The Ontario doctor runs The Seekers Centre in Ottawa, where he uses integrative treatments to treat chronic pain, especially for those suffering from traumatic injuries. Dr. Nahas has worked as both an emergency room doctor in many Canadian hospitals and has also worked with shamans, gurus, and traditional healers in developing countries around the world.
Dr. Nahas has already worked to create an evidence-based approach to integrative medicine in other ways. At the University of Ottawa, he developed an undergraduate curriculum for medical students. He has also published journal articles and textbook chapters and contributed to national guidelines and multinational clinical trials.
He was also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Ottawa and has served as Chair of the Medical Interest Group for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the Ontario Medical Association.
Now, he’s building an app he calls BEAM or Bringing Evidence to Alternative Medicine. The goal is to help track the effectiveness of integrative therapies, using modern technology that allows people who use them to input data about pain, mood, energy, and other so-called patient-reported outcome measures.
Tell us a bit about The Seekers Centre and what you do there.
I founded The Seekers Centre in 2006, and in the years since then, we have been working in the emerging field of integrative pain management, with a focus on pain and the brain. There are several mechanisms that lead to chronic pain, including the brain. Most pain specialists agree that there are too many patients still suffering from terrible pain, despite their best efforts. With an opioid crisis that is still growing, an integrative approach makes more sense for these patients.
The Seekers Centre integrates prescription drug treatment with injections, acupuncture, and other Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies. I work with a great team to combine these approaches to create specialized treatment programs for our patients. Many of them have suffered from chronic pain for years, and they have tried many, many treatments before coming to us.
We feel very good about delivering what we think is great care, and I think our patients get a lot of benefit from our approach.
How did the BEAM Project come about? And why do you think it’s important?
Our society cares about evidence, especially in medicine, and for a good reason. Professional healers of all kinds need to prove that their treatments work to receive long-term funding and recognition.
But unfortunately, that places many forms of alternative or integrative healing in a difficult position. If there’s a study that proves that one of these treatments is useless, then that’s meaningful, and we should look at that. But the reality is that there’s no proof that most forms of alternative healthcare treatments are useless. And I personally doubt that 100 percent of “unproven” treatments have nothing to bring to healthcare.
That’s why I started the BEAM Project. The goal is to collect as much data as we can about the effectiveness of many forms of alternative medicine with the advanced technology and data analysis that is now available to us.
The project is still in its early stages. But ultimately, I would like to release an app that patients want to use because it gives them valuable information about what treatments work and what treatments do not. I would also like it to be available for CAM practitioners everywhere, many of whom are doing great work and not receiving any recognition for it.
What’s the current status of the BEAM app?
Well, we conducted a pilot study of the app in November and December of 2020 at The Seekers Centre. We used it only to assess the effectiveness of the Seekers Method, an assisted stretching technique that patients can learn to use for daily self-care.
The technique combines movement, breath, touch, and awareness to find and release the restrictions in the fascia that limit movement. Those restrictions in fascia typically persist after injuries or trauma to those areas, and they can cause referred pain in areas that most therapies would not think to assess.
We used the app for patients who took 12 sessions of the Seekers Method over a six-week period.
My staff and I learned a lot about how to correctly and efficiently collect data during this time. We learned that it could be very difficult to convince patients to give you data when you ask them to fill out a form. If you want patients to give you accurate information, you have to figure out how to make it fun for them. This is called gamification.
Very often, when you go to a doctor, and they ask you how many bad days you had last month, you can vaguely estimate it, but if you have a month’s worth of hard data — that’s a totally different thing. This is a question that all researchers need an answer to How do we obtain the best and most accurate information from patients about the actual effectiveness of health care treatments?
I think this app could be an important step toward a solution to this problem.
What’s the next step for BEAM?
At this point, we’re in the second phase of development. We have tested the app with the Seekers Method, so now we’re going to use this technology to measure outcomes after every treatment session we provide at the Centre.
We are hoping to demonstrate that over time we find better ways to get consistent, accurate data from our patients.
Ultimately, I hope to deploy this app more widely to crowdsource data from thousands of CAM providers and millions of patients worldwide. This would be a tremendous resource for leaders and decision-makers at the national and global levels. For now, though, I am content to focus on measuring our ability to ease the suffering of our patients with chronic pain, to improve their function and quality of life.
After more than two decades as a doctor, this still feels like the best way I can make the world a better place — for all of us.