Once largely dismissed as a leftover fad from the Age of Aquarius (search), 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 (search) 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 in August.
"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 (search) 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 grant money."
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 (search) so they can better serve their patients who are already taking them.
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 (search) and massage to reflexology (search) and aromatherapy (search) — 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."