Twenty-five years ago, conventional Western medicine and so-called "alternative" therapies were divergent practices with no apparent relationship to each other. Today, over 40 medical schools - including the University of Minnesota Medical School ( - require students to learn about these therapies. And MDs sometimes refer patients to practitioners like chiropractors and massage therapists.

"It's a grassroots movement," says Dr. Karen Lawson, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota. "Patients were using these therapies, and many weren't telling their medical providers. To provide integrative, holistic care, we all need to work together."

Therapeutic Overview

On the Twin Cities Campus, all first- and second-year medical students take a required course that includes lessons on health and spirituality, comparative systems like traditional Chinese medicine and ayurveda, and manual therapies such as chiropractic and massage. The students visit Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington where they observe what students of these systems and practices are learning.

During the third year, several of these practices are being newly integrated into medical students' clinical clerkships. In their gynecology clerkship, for example, students will consider therapeutic options other than hormones for a menopausal patient. In internal medicine, they take a look at possible medical interactions with herbal or nutritional supplements.

Making Treatment Decisions

"We're trying to foster respectful relationships between practitioners," Lawson says. "And we want physicians to be able to conduct open, non-judgmental conversations with patients."

She notes that the American Medical Association ( has charged physicians to "... routinely inquire about the use of alternative or unconventional therapy by their patients, and educate themselves and their patients about the state of scientific knowledge with regard to alternative therapy that may be used or contemplated."

Lawson hopes that one day soon we will no longer talk specifically about "integrative medicine," because all medicine will be truly integrative, holistic and patient-centered.


Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.