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The Teaching of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in U.S. Medical Schools: A Survey of Course Directors

Brokaw, James J. PhD, MPH; Tunnicliff, Godfrey PhD; Raess, Beat U. PhD; Saxon, Dale W. PhD

Special Theme: Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine: SPECIAL THEME RESEARCH REPORTS

Purpose: The number of U.S. medical schools offering courses in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has risen sharply in recent years. This study gauged the current state of CAM instruction by gathering details about the specific topics being taught and the objectives behind the instruction.

Method: Data were collected from questionnaires mailed to 123 CAM course directors at 74 U.S. medical schools.

Results: Questionnaires were returned by 73 course directors at 53 schools. The topics most often being taught were acupuncture (76.7%), herbs and botanicals (69.9%), meditation and relaxation (65.8%), spirituality/faith/prayer (64.4%), chiropractic (60.3%), homeopathy (57.5%), and nutrition and diets (50.7%). The amounts of instructional time devoted to individual CAM topics varied widely, but most received about two contact hours. The “typical” CAM course was sponsored by a clinical department as an elective, was most likely to be taught in the first or fourth year of medical school, and had fewer than 20 contact hours of instruction. Most of the courses (78.1%) were taught by individuals identified as being CAM practitioners or prescribes of CAM therapies. Few of the courses (17.8%) emphasized a scientific approach to the evaluation of CAM effectiveness.

Conclusion: A wide variety of topics are being taught in U.S. medical schools under the umbrella of CAM. For the most part, the instruction appears to be founded on the assumption that unconventional therapies are effective, but little scientific evidence is offered. This approach is questionable, especially since mainstream medicine owes much of its success to a foundation of established scientific principles.

At the time the paper was written, Dr. Brokaw was associate professor, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology; he is now assistant dean, Office of Medical Student Academic Affairs; Dr. Saxon is assistant professor, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Dr. Tunnicliff is professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Dr. Raess is professor, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Indiana University School of Medicine, Evansville.

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to Dr. Brokaw, Office of Medical Student Academic Affairs, Indiana University School of Medicine, Medical Science Building, Room 164, 635 Barnhill Drive, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5120; e-mail: 〈jbrokaw@iupui.edu〉.

© 2002 Association of American Medical Colleges