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What Is Integrative Medicine?

Experts explore new ways to treat the mind, body, and spirit -- all at the same time.
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Medical Schools and Integrative Medicine

Even medical schools have added courses on nontraditional therapies, although doing so can sometimes be a point of contention among faculty.

At the University of California, San Francisco, medical students can augment their coursework in infectious disease and immunology with electives, such as "Herbs and Dietary Supplements" or "Massage and Meditation." They can even opt to study as exchange students at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the world of integrative medicine, it's not unusual to see a Western-trained MD who also has credentials in acupuncture or hypnosis, or a registered nurse who is also a yoga teacher and massage therapist.

Opposing Views

Not all doctors are jumping onboard, though. Some critics have charged that integrative medicine is driven largely by market forces, as well as public fascination and demand for alternative treatments.

"This is a very faddish country," says Tom Delbanco, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor and doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. In one national survey of hospitals that offer complementary therapies, 44% listed "physician resistance" as one of the top three hurdles in implementing programs, along with "budgetary constraints" (65%) and "lack of evidence-based research" (39%).

Delbanco says he's concerned that there's not enough scientific evidence to justify the amount of resources spent on integrative medicine and complementary therapies. "I worry that people are making claims in the context of scientific medicine that they cannot really justify. I think there have been few rigorously controlled, scientifically sound studies in the area, and when they have been done, the vast majority have shown these medicines to be no different from placebo."

"I have no trouble with offering hope," he adds. "I think people need hope and optimism. Where I have trouble is when we promise things to people that aren't real."

Finding the Evidence

The search for solid evidence is key: which therapies help and which don't? "There's a clamoring for understanding the biology of this," Sternberg says. Many proponents of integrative care say that it's crucial to hold alternative therapies up to scientific scrutiny, rather than dismissing them outright, because doctors and patients alike need answers. For example, a patient may be taking an herb that is harmful or may interfere with prescription drugs.

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