Students explore health care alternatives

Jake Kapsner

Watching acupuncturists and chiropractors at work in their clinics isn’t normal fare for third- and fourth-year University medical students.
But that’s exactly what a handful of students and faculty have done for the past three weeks as part of a course called, “Introduction to Complimentary and Alternative Therapies.”
Offered four times a year through the Department of Family Practice and Community Health, the course aims to connect future doctors to their patients’ lives. The course comes at a time when people are spending more time and money on alternative health care techniques like energy healing and homeopathy.
“The good thing about this course is to let students be aware of what’s really out there, what their patients are going through,” said Dr. Mark Millis, a course director.
Once considered a fringe group, practitioners of alternative and holistic medicine have grabbed greater public attention in recent years.
Since an article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993 documenting Americans’ widespread use of what the author called “unconventional medicine,” physicians and medical schools have been forced to take notice.
The landmark study surprised physicians, forcing them to confront for the first time the phenomenon that people spend more out-of-pocket money on complimentary care — a total of $10.3 billion — than on hospitalizations, according to the study.
That large statistic figures into why fourth-year medical student Twila Germanson took the course. She said her emphasis is to work with patients without being closed off to their health needs.
“The whole goal of the course is to get students to interact with and observe the work of healers who come from healing traditions other than allopathic methods,” said Sonia Patten, an anthropologist who has linked students with practitioners like a Hmong shaman and a Somalian physician.
The students are not actually practicing the alternative therapies, but learning about how to collaborate with practitioners to work within fields. Millis said such knowledge of patient health choices is especially important when a doctor is prescribing medicine to someone already taking herbal medicines.
Richard Cash said he knew that the different therapies existed, but wanted to find out more. Taking the class taught him to question his medical school training, he said.
That training is built on traditional scientific research methods, and many western physicians have scrutinized the validity of complimentary medicine which fails the litmus test of their trade, specifically, the random control and double-blind studies.
“The paradigms of how we do medical research need to be restructured, or probably rethought, to look at these disciplines,” said Cash, emphasizing that traditional science is still valuable, just not appropriate for evaluating alternative medicine.
The University course, which incorporates experiential, on-site learning and emphasizes Internet dialogue among students, has garnered national attention for its unconventional approach, said Dr. David Power, a course director.
The course’s five students and two faculty observed, for example, chiropractic and shiatsu therapies in group clinics and went to individual elective clinics ranging from music therapy to traditional Chinese medicine.
Heavy use of the Internet, another changing aspect of medical education, is a required part of the course as well. Using newly purchased software, the Medical School posted a password-protected Web site for course participants that’s made synthesizing what they’ve learned much easier, said Barbara Jensen, who coordinates the course.
Powers said course participants noted a major difference they observed between complimentary medicine and the traditional approach, which stresses professionalism. “Virtually all of the complimentary physicians touch the patient at some time during the visit,” he said.
The question medical students must ask themselves, Power said, is “Are we doctors who try and cure illness, or are we doctors who try and heal people?”