GMA: Alternative 'Medicine Man'

ByTeresa Novellino via logo

S A N   F R A N C I S C O,   Dec. 5, 2000 -- As Dr. Michael Samuels examined a patient, he used healing tools of feathers, rose petals and animal statues called totems instead of instruments.

He’s the modern version of an ancient Native American medicine man.

Samuels is a modern-day shaman, a traditionally trained immuno-geneticist who worked on a Hopi-Navaho Indian reservation in the 1960s.

“The shaman is the part of the physician that uses mystical and intuitive tools to heal,” Samuels told Good Morning America. “What you know is a good doctor has moments where they look into your eyes, where you can feel the interconnection with you — a merger — their heart opening. When that’s missing there’s a coldness that the patient feels and the healing is incomplete.”

Samuels’ nature-inspired approach has drawn interest, not only from patients, but from traditional healing centers thirsty for new information.

He collaborates with researchers at the University of Florida, and works with patients at Marin General Hospital outside of San Francisco, often taking them outdoors as part of the healing process. Much of the interest in alternative therapy is driven by patients, experts say.

Referrals and a Healthy Skepticism

“I will more times than not have someone say ‘can you refer me to a female doctor who will incorporate alternative treatments into health care?’” said Good Morning America’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a surgeon oncologist. And this, she says, is a good thing.

In 1983, when Snyderman first began practicing, alternative medicine was practically non-existent. Over the years, she has maintained a “healthy skepticism,” but has come to see the value of such treatments as Echinacea for colds, therapeutic massage and acupuncture and she has made referrals for alternative practitioners.Not all doctors feel quite so comfortable doing so, and Snyderman understands why.

“My colleagues are very hesitant, but they are coming along,” she said. “It is imperative that we hold up alternative medicine to the same rigorous standards as everything else. The scientific community is asking for proof that these practices work, and they should be.”

So far, there isn’t a great deal of research into alternative medicine, compared to traditional techniques.

Alternative Medicine 101? At UCLA School of Medicine, first-year students watch acupuncture demonstrations and listen to lectures about Chinese medicine. Alternative medicine concepts are woven through their coursework, and there is also a Center for East West Medicine affiliated with the school.

Although students can take alternative medicine electives, such as yoga and mind-body medicine, tried and true medical theories provides the bulk of their coursework.

“Everyone is like ‘show me the proof.’ It isn’t a big part of the medical school curriculum,” said Susan Stangl, an associate professor of family medicine at UCLA. “We’re not there to teach acupuncture.”

However, students need to be informed about alternative medicine, she said.

“Patients will come in with herbs and other supplements, and they need to know how to deal with that,” Stangl said. The doctors-in-training must know about the alternative therapies, and be able to dispense that information, and perhaps make referrals to specialists, or even learn some of the therapies themselves.

The extent to which alternative medicine is taught in colleges varies. The American Association of Medical Colleges found that in 1998 at least 75 medical schools included complementary and alternative medicine in their curricula. That was almost twice the number that reported doing so in 1996.

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