Many doctors are not open-minded to complementary and alternative medicine, otherwise known as CAM. But times are changing. Patient demand for alternative medicine is on the rise.
"While going to university, [medical] are somehow taught to close their minds."
So said Vancouver talkshow host Croft Woodruff in a recent interview. He reiterated a common patient complaint that many doctors are not open-minded to complementary and alternative medicine, otherwise known as CAM. But times are changing. Patient demand for alternative medicine is on the rise.
A 1997 Angus Reid poll noted that 42 percent of Canadians surveyed have used alternative medicine, and close to half of them began taking vitamin therapy and seeking naturopathic advice within the previous five years. These figures are up from a 1993 survey published by the New England Journal of Medicine, which revealed that 34 percent of American respondents had tried CAM, totaling an estimated 425 million visits to alternative medical practitioners.
Luckily, a new batch of physicians is on the horizon, helped along by a growth in alternative medicine courses offered by North American universities. In 1998, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a study that examined CAM courses in US medical schools. Of the 125 schools polled, 30 per cent have information on CAM incorporated into required courses, while 67 per cent offer this information in stand-alone electives. This year, the Canadian Medical Association Journal revealed that 13 out of 16 Canadian medical schools include some form of CAM in their curricula.
Acupuncture was the most popular modality (in 10 schools), followed by homeopathic medicine (nine schools), and herbal medicine (eight schools). Alternative medicine is a required component of courses in nine schools, while the three schools not yet teaching alternative medicine as part of their curricula have plans to do so shortly.
Students For Change
At the University of British Columbia (UBC), as with other Canadian universities, the access to CAM is there, but it’s extremely limited. Currently there’s only one elective offered to fourth year pharmacy students and a few hours dedicated to CAM in second year medicine. However, one group of UBC students is hoping to facilitate change from within the current medical system through the newly formed Alternative and Integrative Medical Society of UBC (AIMS). A student-run society founded in March 1998, AIMS hopes to offer students an unbiased source of objective of information on complementary and alternative therapies and has been involved in several projects to that end.
"Integration of the two extremes of medicine is our prime focus," says AIMS president Ashley Riskin, a fourth-year honors biochemistry student who founded the group last year, along with three other UBC students. "We simply want to raise student awareness and serve a role in bridging the gap between alternative and conventional approaches to medicine."
To Riskin’s knowledge, there are no other undergraduate societies in North America with the same focus. Nevertheless, the group is trying to network with students at other institutions. Ideally, the AIMS newsletter will eventually include articles from students across North America. Some American universities also have smaller groups exclusively for medical students interested in integrative medicine. Riskin himself spent last summer volunteering at the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.
AIMS publishes four newsletters per year and organizes a lecture series for students on various aspects of CAM, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, herbalism and nutrition. Society membership, which has roughly doubled in size the past year from 120 to 250, is open to all students and members of the public interested in integrative medicine, although the majority of members attend UBC classes. More than one third of AIMS members are medical students. Additional departments well represented within this group include pharmacy, nutrition and other health sciences.
"We’ve had positive feedback from the community," says Riskin, "Our sponsorship funding has greatly increased over the past year and this is allowing us to better meet our goals. We’re hoping that our conference provides students with information on CAM not currently offered at UBC."
Entitled Practical Applications of Alternative, Complementary & Integrative Medicine, the conference will take place January 22, 2000 at UBC. Confirmed speakers include Allison McCutcheon, PhD, president of the Canadian Herb Society, Hal Gunn, MD of the Centre for Integrated Healing and Allan Best, PhD, past director of the Tzu Chi Institute.
Medical School of the Future
Mustafa Toma is a founding AIMS member and president of the current class of first year medical students. Acting as a liason between AIMS and other medical students, he’s in a good position to view student perceptions. "In my opinion, most med students have a lot of interest in alternative medicine and want to learn more about it. A few of the students I talked to have complained that CAM isn’t scientifically proven, but they still feel it should be included in a physician’s body of knowledge."
Toma himself is especially interested in acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine. But there isn’t much instruction in the current UBC medical curriculum. In 2001, he looks forward to a brief introduction to these modes of therapy, but unfortunately, he says, the courses don’t teach how to use them.
"As we advance technologically, we must also integrate older and ignored therapies that have been used in other cultures for thousands of years."
Starting this month (January 2000), UBC students can finally take a course dedicated exclusively to complementry and alternative medicine. One of five pilot courses, it is student-directed and intended for those students interested in pursuing a career in medicine, pharmacy, nursing or other health sciences. Students will critically evaluate current information on various aspects of complementary and alternative medicine. Fourth year science credit is offered and registration is limited.
So can we expect doctors of the future to be well-versed in integrative medicine, courtesy of increased university involvement?
"There is definite room for change in existing medical programs," Riskin says. "I recently attended a medical conference put on by Duke University which allowed me to get a better sense of where medicine is heading. According to Dr [Andrew] Weil, improvements can be made by implementing required pre-med courses on different aspects of CAM such as nutrition and botany."
Toma agrees that the accepted system of medicine is outdated and ready for a change.
"We’re at an age when conventional medicine isn’t efficient by itself."
Integrative medicine, a discipline which combines the best of western and alternative medicine, appears to be just what the doctor ordered.
To contact AIMS: Box 81, UBC, 6138 SUB Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1 Phone: (604) 822-8085 Fax: (604) 822-2495 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: ams.ubc.ca/aims