Why I...believe medical students should study unorthodox treatments

August 6, 1999

Reg Jordan Director of medical studies at Newcastle University, the first university in the United Kingdom to make study of complementary medicine compulsory for medical students

Contrary to what some of my more traditional colleagues might think, we are not turning our medical students into therapists. Underpinning the teaching and learning in our Medicine in the Community programme is the need to promote a respect for the health and illness beliefs of patients. A patient's preconceptions can be influenced by all aspects of their background. These can vary from old wives' tales to a well-informed knowledge of medicine. We want our students to understand where their patient is coming from, even if they are a little misplaced.

Some might think we are being a little conservative by addressing only four of the complementary therapies: acupuncture, manipulation, homeopathy and hypnotherapy. But these four areas all have stronger evidence bases than the other treatments that also come under the alternative umbrella, such as aromatherapy and crystals. I do not mean to sound derogatory, but we decided to start with the therapies that have a pretty firm basis and professional accreditation. In fact there are certain areas of common ground between complementary therapies and orthodox medicine, which is why we prefer to refer to them as complementary rather than alternative treatments. The trigger points used in acupuncture are the same as those used in orthodox methods for treating referred pain. Many of the drugs we use in conventional medicine today would also have appeared in an Old Wives' Tale Herbal Remedies Book.

We have to remember that conventional medicine does not have all the answers. That is why our students are made familiar with holistic approaches and of how to integrate these therapies with the orthodox approach.

There is an enormous patient-led demand for these treatments. A study in Australia showed that the public spent as much on over-the-counter therapeutic treatments as it spent on conventional medicines.

If the patient believes that taking a homeopathic remedy will put them at ease, then, if it will not harm them in any way, the treatment should be recommended. But we tell our students to take nothing as given - they are to question and look for evidence in support of the treatment.

The general public today is far more aware of health matters than it has been at any other time in history, and some disreputable people may try to exploit this interest. Complementary medicine has a place in the community and it is our belief, one that the General Medical Council has endorsed, that our medical students should be aware of its presence. It is only a start, but it is a legitimate one.

Interview by Jennifer Currie

Should medical schools make study of

complementary medicine compulsory?

Email us on soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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