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Should medical students be taught alternative medicine?

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g2417 (Published 28 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2417

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Re: Should medical students be taught alternative medicine?

I have enjoyed very much reading the paper published this week in the Head to Head section of our extraordinary and absorbing Bmj. Article was written by Catto, Cork and Williams, it says about one of many unexpected things that are happening now in the health sector—one of the big problems facing the medical care and profession today; it invites all its readers to reflect on the new challenges recognized in the contemporary world, by all researchers in medical and educational sciences. I was very interested in it because in recent times, after finishing their studies, many of our graduates become very interested in using unofficial therapies as a complement for their daily work. Even some of them follow higher studies in Asiatic medicine, phytotherapy, and other subjects considered before to be crazy dangerous therapeutical procedures.

Instead of using the words traditional or complementary or folkloric medicine, I use the terms official or unofficial medicine for designating medical procedures recognized or not, as authorized, by our nowadays Colombian governmental laws that rule our social, moral and ethical behavior.

The successes of drugs and other medical orthodox treatments introduced in practice in the 1950s have been followed by several reverses and therapeutic disasters; thalidomide, and several dangerous nitrogenous synthetic compounds are wonderful examples of those bad calamitous events. Many scientific works published in journals and magazines show the irrelevancy of several official drugs and orthodox therapies well known by doctors. In provinces, towns, villages, cities several doctors prescribe drugs and official treatments without success. The situation is so critical that many people think that some responsible leaders, for medical care in Colombia, are playing more at business than at improving people's health; for that reason patients don't believe in the effectiveness of several official procedures and they want to be treated with something quite different. Another very valid reason by which people refuse to take official treatments is the very high and globalized cost that is medical care in Colombia. People don't earn a lot of money for their work done or services rendered. They don´t have enough money to meet the needs of any situation related to disease.

Whatever the great advances of science and technology, there are a lot of things on earth that science has dreamed on and Phytotherapy is one of them. The most important and relevant events in the story of medicine and therapy are connected with the discovery of what are called metabolites of secondary origin in biochemistry. To that list belong very useful therapeutic substances, such as antibiotics, alkaloids, phenolic compounds …

Geographic position, radiation intensity, climate and soil conditions of tropical countries are very favorable for natural production of these substances. Along human history innumerable plants have been listed for their excellent traditional therapeutic uses, and a lot of researchers have been very interested in studying their curative properties. I think the discovery of America is not only important for the finding of a new world, but because Spanish conquerors met here a vast variety of nutritional and medical plants and animals. They met a vast flora with no equal anywhere in the 16th century world: there was nothing that could match it in those times. They were so interested in our plants that they designed and did a big specific plan for obtaining, collecting, culturing and studying plants with therapeutical properties, produced in our territory. Botanical expedition projects were led by the most important botany researchers of the world in Colombia, venerable scientific men making long but productive journeys of investigation. From the results of many of those scientific works were born the roots of current pharmacotherapy.

Not only poor people use medical plants, but also actors, sportsmen, celebrities, members of the highest social classes, in all countries around the world. People use them because of their excellent therapeutic properties. People have recognized and approved them because century after century, throughout many generations, those plants have produced the same wonderful results. So for this reason, although complementary medicine is not an integral part of the curriculum in several medical schools, and although we don´t have the powerful academic labs, and the money for implementing the necessary techniques for making research, school teachers should include in their academic plans, how to prescribe and study those plants socially accredited at practice by people, as good tools for helping to the medical care system to solve many therapeutic problems.

Competing interests: I was born in Colombia and as Biochemist I have isolated and studied at lab, several active compounds present in plants used in unofficial medicine.

02 May 2014
Emilio Polo Ledezma
Ph.D. Proteolytic Enzymes – Nutrition. Teacher of Clinical Biochemistry.
SALTITUD 12 – 4 RESEARCH GROUP. Program of Medicine Surcolombiana University.
Calle 9 Carrera 14 Barrio Altico. Neiva – Huila – Colombia S.A.