Future doctors and nurses are learning about acupuncture and herbs along with anatomy and physiology at a growing number of medical schools. It’s another example of how alternative medicine has become mainstream. And it’s often done with Uncle Sam’s help.
The government has spent more than $22 million to help medical and nursing schools start teaching about alternative medicine — lesson plans that some critics say are biased toward unproven remedies.
Additional tax money has been spent to recruit and train young doctors to do research in this field, launching some into careers as alternative medicine providers.
Doctors need to know about popular remedies so they can discuss them nonjudgmentally and give competent advice, the government says, and many universities and medical groups agree.
“Patients are using these things” whether doctors think they should or should not, and safety is a big concern, said Dr. Victor Sierpina, an acupuncturist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who heads a group of academics who favor such training.
But to critics, it’s like teaching Harry Potter medicine. Students are being asked to close their eyes to science principles that guide the rest of their training in order to keep an open mind about pseudoscience, they say.
“I’m concerned about the teaching of illogical thinking to medical students” and lending credence to biologically implausible theories like distance healing and energy fields, said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician who runs Quackwatch, a Web site on medical scams.
Teaching about alternative medicine implies acceptance of it and “potentially creates more gullibility and less critical, objective thinking,” said Dr. Wallace Sampson, editor of the journal Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. “This will be felt in many indirect ways,” he said, including judgment errors, misguiding people with severe diseases, and lax standards and laws.
The real issue is not whether alternative medicine should be taught, but how, said Dr. Joseph Jacobs, former head of the federal Office of Alternative Medicine.
“The parallel here is creationism versus science,” Jacobs said. “If the topic is taught objectively, to help students communicate with patients, it’s a good idea. If it’s being taught as part of an advocacy, for acceptance among physicians, I think that’s a little bit bogus.”
Sometimes the line is blurry.
Some schools have close ties to alternative medicine providers or advocates who shape information on the schools’ Web sites or classes for students and the public.
The field got a boost 10 years ago, with creation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It made merging alternative and mainstream medicine “a central and overarching goal” and gave $22.5 million to 12 medical schools, two nursing schools and the American Medical Student Association to develop curriculum plans.
Quality of research
A review of some of those teaching plans by Drs. Donald Marcus and Laurence McCullough of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston concludes that they are “strongly biased in favor of CAM,” cite poor-quality research, and were not updated after better studies revealed a therapy did not work. The review is in the September issue of the journal Academic Medicine.
The section on herbals in the Medical Student Association’s plan was written by the head of the American Botanical Council, an industry-supported research and education group, the article says.
Sierpina said the purpose of these lesson plans is not propaganda.
“We are not trying to make students CAM practitioners,” but to train them to be “sensitive to where people come from, their folk medicine, their home remedies,” he said.
Just as there are true believers who ignore evidence that something doesn’t work, there are true doubters who are guilty of “arrogant thinking that we’ve got it all figured out,” Sierpina said.