Medical schools embrace the New Age

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TRAINEE DOCTORS are to study New Age therapies as a compulsory part of their medical training. Once derided as crackpot, alternative medicine is to become de rigueur in medical schools.

Students will swap stethoscopes and thermometers for acupuncture needles and homeopathic kits and spend time doing "hands on" work with patients .

Newcastle is the first university to make complementary medicine compulsory although several universities are setting up study options in treatments such as osteopathy, homeopathy and hypnosis.

All medical students at Newcastle will have an introduction to the subject, with the chance to take a seven-week course on the mysteries of pressure points, hypnosis and spinal manipulation techniques. Working under supervision in acupuncture and osteopathic clinics, the students will help diagnose and discuss treatments for patients.

The medical schools are taking their lead from GPs. According to researchers at Exeter University, as many as 40 per cent of GP practices in England now provide massage, osteopathy, homeopathy and acupuncture treatments for conditions such as asthma, skin complaints and back pain.

"An increasing number of patients are turning to alternative practitioners and doctors need to be aware of what these therapies entail so they can advise their patients from a position of strength," said Professor Reg Jordan, director of medical studies at Newcastle University.

"Doctors have to respect their patients' healthcare beliefs. It is no good labelling these treatments as mumbo jumbo when a large number of patients use them."

Professor Jordan said that even when there was no scientific evidence that a therapy was helping, doctors needed to recognise that it could still provide psychological support.

However he drew a distinction between treatments such as osteopathy, which have made a successful transition from fringe to mainstream, and therapies that could harm the patient.

The emphasis at Newcastle, as at Birmingham and Manchester medical schools which also teach complementary medicine, is on evidence-based learning where students can evaluate the effects of different treatments on individual patients and make up their own minds about what works.

The shift towards a more patient-centred approach has already seen universities expand their remit to cover public health issues and community-based work.

At the joint Leicester and Warwick medical school, students spend a proportion of their course in a one-stop inner-city GP surgery, which combines healthcare facilities with childcare, a cafe, police station and housing and social services.

They can also study art therapy, and this autumn the school will open the first fast-track four year medical degree for biological sciences graduates.