Once largely dismissed as a leftover fad from
the Age of Aquarius, acupuncture, herbal remedies
and other forms of alternative medicine are finding
their way into curriculums at traditional medical
schools most recently the University of Pennsylvania.
Doctors at Penn are working with Tai Sophia Institute,
an alternative medicine school in Maryland, on a
program to teach medical students about herbal therapies,
meditation and other approaches that are increasingly
popular with the public but largely exist outside
the realm of mainstream medicine. It will start
"We're not going to turn great surgeons into acupuncturists
or herbalists; that's not the idea," said Robert
Duggan, co-founder of Tai Sophia. "The goal is that
Penn medical school graduates will be highly able
to speak with patients about how to guide these
things into their overall care."
More than a third of American adults have tried
alternative therapies including yoga, meditation,
herbs and the Atkins diet according to a
2002 government survey of 31,000 people, the largest
study of its kind in the United States.
Universities nationwide, in response to the burgeoning
numbers, are increasingly focusing on complementary
medicine (used along with conventional treatment)
and alternative medicine (used instead of conventional
treatment). Some are creating their own programs
and others are working with alternative medicine
practitioners, said Aviad Haramati, a professor
at Georgetown University's medical school.
"More and more there's a willingness by conventional
schools to recognize the CAM (complementary and
alternative medicine) schools as having this expertise,"
Haramati said. "And there's a recognition by the
CAM disciplines that linking with conventional academic
centers to foster research is a good thing."
Georgetown students work with a massage therapy
school, for example, and Tufts University students
work with an acupuncture school, he said.
"It made perfect sense to us," said Dr. Alfred
P. Fishman of Penn's medical school, co-director
of the collaboration. "We thought, why start from
scratch? This is a very respected organization with
30 years of hands-on experience."
More than 95 of the nation's 125 medical schools
require some kind of complementary and alternative
medicine coursework, according to the Association
of American Medical Colleges.
The new partnership will offer a master's degree
in complementary and alternative medicine. The degree,
offered to the university's medical and nursing
students, will come from the Tai Sophia Institute;
the schools will exchange faculty members and students.
"If you had raised this 10 years ago everyone would
have sneered at it," Fishman said. "Today, we're
moving away from being completely focused on preventing
disease and toward looking at what it takes to (achieve
and maintain) wellness. ... I think patient care
will improve enormously."
One critic of the trend is Dr. Steven Barrett of
Allentown, a Columbia University-trained psychologist
who runs the Web site Quackwatch.
Alternative medicine programs are finding their
way into mainstream institutions not because there's
proof the therapies work, Barrett said, but because
skeptical voices are squelched and "administrators
see it as a way to jump on the bandwagon and get
Penn and Tai Sophia are also developing postgraduate
and continuing education courses on complementary
and alternative medicine. One program, for example,
will teach doctors about herbal medicines so they
can better serve their patients who are already
In addition, cardiologists at Penn's Presbyterian
Medical Center are working with Tai Sophia to integrate
alternative therapies into traditional care for
heart patients. The idea is to teach the cardiology
staff how to develop personalized therapy plans
including everything from meditation and
massage to reflexology and aromatherapy to
decrease patient stress, pain and anxiety.
"We get the benefit of their extraordinary research
capabilities and educational facilities. They get
the benefit of an institution that understands the
world of (unconventional medicine)," Duggan said.
Fishman said the research possibilities are exciting
as well. For example, new brain imaging technology
will allow researchers to physically explore how
things like herbs, acupuncture, even prayer, can
make people feel better.
"In the days before we could image the brain it
was very hard to know about how these things worked,
why placebos work in some people," he said. "We
can image the brain now and see why they feel better.
Nothing is off limits."