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A New Medical Model

Top medical schools are taking an aggressive approach to teaching future doctors about complementary medicine.

By Linda Knittel

If the staff at Harvard Medical School has its way, the term "complementary medicine" will soon disappear from the American lexicon. Not because Harvard is full of nonbelievers--in fact, just the opposite. With the recent establishment of the Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies, the institution's administrators and faculty have taken a giant step toward changing the dominant medical model from one focused on biomedicine to one incorporating holistic health.

Through structured clinical trials and progressive curricula, medical schools like Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia are working to blend the philosophies and techniques of complementary medicine into conventional medical thought, hence making the distinction between the two modalities obsolete.

Clearly, a one-world medical model won't happen overnight. But a recent study by Harvard professor of health-care policy, Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., established that at least 42 percent of Americans already use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and interest is growing.

Yet many conventional medical programs are still dragging their heels when it comes to incorporating such teachings. "It seems clear that the proportion of medical schools teaching CAM is increasing as conventional medicine learns about the widespread use of these therapies within the population," says Kessler.

Presently more than 75 of the 125 U.S. medical schools are introducing their students to complementary practices, says the American Association of Medical Colleges, but it will be some time before most integrate these doctrines into the standard curriculum. "The general teaching of CAM as part of the clinical toolkit will only occur when clinical trials provide solid evidence that CAM works," says Kessler. Determining the mechanisms of action and the efficacy of CAM therapies is precisely what places like Harvard and Georgetown are trying to do. Thanks to grants from the National Institutes of Health, several institutions have launched clinical studies on everything from shark cartilage use in cancer treatment to acupuncture for osteoarthritis pain. The idea is that if science can demystify these practices and prove they work, conventional medicine will be ready to accept them.

"Eventually practitioners will be able to pick and choose from a whole range of healing techniques so that each will practice his or her own individual kind of therapeutic approach," says James Gordon, M.D., head of Georgetown's Center for Mind-Body Medicine. "But for this to work there will need to be a mutual respect established between conventional doctors and CAM practitioners."

It is not yet clear whether all medical schools will choose to teach CAM therapies or just introduce them to students. "Perhaps CAM treatments like megavitamin therapy, which is easy to learn and fits with the predisposition of the conventional doctor, will be practiced by the doctors themselves," says Kessler. "For CAM therapies that are difficult to master, conventional doctors will set up collaborations with CAM specialists."

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Reader Comments

Theresa Ramsey, NMD

Inspiring article. I have been a Licensed Naturopathic Physcian for 16 years. Prior to this I worked as an RN for 10 years. My practice is a blend of both types of medicine which is what makes it so successful. I've had a goal for a long time - to bridge the gap between conventional and alternative medicine. To see this type of teaching in top medical schools is inspiring to me as I know how much it benefits the patient as well as practitioners involved in his/her care. This represents to me the greatest advancement in medicine to date.

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