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Should medical students be taught alternative medicine?

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 28 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2417
  1. Graeme Catto, president1,
  2. Nick Cork, medical student2,
  3. Gareth Williams, emeritus professor of medicine and senior research fellow in philosophy3
  1. 1College of Medicine, Guy’s Hospital, Great Maze Pond, London SE1 9RT, UK
  2. 2School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 0SP, UK
  3. 3University of Bristol, City of Bristol BS8 1TH, UK
  1. Correspondence to: Graeme Catto president{at}, Nick Cork nicholascork{at}

Doctors should be able to discuss the non-evidence based therapies that patients want to try, says Graeme Catto. But Nick Cork and Gareth Williams say that students risk being indoctrinated and should be taught only about interventions that have been shown to be safe and effective

Yes—Graeme Catto

“Demonstrate awareness that many patients use complementary and alternative therapies, and awareness of the existence and range of these therapies, why patients use them, and how this might affect other types of treatment that patients are receiving.1

This guidance, from the UK General Medical Council’s Tomorrow’s Doctors encapsulates lucidly and concisely why medical students are taught about alternative medicine. I find it difficult to conceive of a counterargument.

The choices patients make

To provide quality care doctors must be aware of choices patients make and be able to discuss them in an informed and non-judgmental way. Any other approach puts the doctor-patient relationship at risk. Patients are reluctant to raise issues that they believe meet with disapproval. These principles apply to complementary and alternative medicine the same way as to other lifestyle choices.

And this is a choice made by many people in the United Kingdom. The annual spend on alternative health treatments has been estimated to be as much as £5.4bn (€6.5bn; $8.9bn).2 All aspects of medical care are involved and not only in general practice. As a nephrologist I learnt that patients wanted complementary therapies to relieve some of the intractable and distressing symptoms, such as skin itch and restless legs, associated with chronic renal failure. Patients discussed among themselves the therapies they found useful. For my part I checked that there were no known interactions with their current conventional treatment and was pleased if symptoms were relieved.

With the development of the internet and social media, such suggestions for self …

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