The first hint that this is a different kind of medical school are the botanical prints on the classroom walls.
At the University of Bridgeport's College of Naturopathic Medicine, plants collected on a recent class trip to a Jamaican rain forest steep in jars in the school pharmacy. As a recent class project, students planted an herb garden.
At UB's 5-year-old training program for naturopaths, students wear white lab coats, see sick clinic patients and take classes standard on the curriculum of most American medical schools - biochemistry, anatomy, immunology, gynecology, pediatrics, even emergency medicine. They also take classes you would never find at most Western medical schools, courses with titles like "Living Anatomy: Massage," "Botanicals I," "Homeopathy I" and "Natural Philosophy and Therapeutics."
"I think what makes us different is the things we study that you wouldn't find anywhere else," explains Michael Armentano of Greenwich, a fifth-semester student in the UB program. "And that's why I am here. I didn't want to study that. And I don't want to be that kind of doctor."
Armentano is one of about 75 students studying to become naturopaths on UB's waterfront campus, home to the only American medical school east of the Rockies that teaches holistic medicine and a variety of ancient and natural healing disciplines. In May, the UB program, while still struggling in its infancy, graduated its first class of four. This fall, school officials say they will admit 25 to 30 first-year students. School officials attribute the growing enrollment to its East Coast locale and the fact that naturopaths, often scorned by the medical establishment as quacks, are gaining acceptance as legitimate health practitioners. Nineteen states, including Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, now license naturopaths. And many major insurance companies are beginning to reimburse patients for visits to their offices. Some insurers are now recognizing them as primary care physicians.
"Our system is based on the belief that only nature heals," explains Dr. Peter Martin, a chiropractor, who is the college's dean. "Our emphasis is on fostering wellness and teaching therapies including herbal remedy, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, counseling, lifestyle modification and probably more than anything, prevention." Martin says that the school's curriculum is as demanding as those at many traditional medical schools, even though its admissions standards, a minimum undergraduate grade-point average of 2.5 (or C), are not rigorous by traditional medical school standards. Students accepted into the program "have to take everything they have to at a traditional medical school, plus more," Martin says. "We have an emphasis on things like nutrition and acupuncture that you just won't find at the traditional, allopathic medical school."
The growing interest in natural medicine has drawn students from across the United States to UB, although most hail from the New England states, New York and New Jersey. Many have medical backgrounds in fields such as nursing and public health and nutrition. The college, Martin notes, is particularly proud of the fact that it is the only college of naturopathic medicine in the United States affiliated with a university. "It means they are taking their science courses, for example, from a very experienced faculty," says Martin. This relationship also gives its students opportunities to receive dual degrees, including combination master's degrees in human nutrition, chiropractic medicine and naturopathy.
Students attracted to the program include Dorette Lewis-Senior, a registered nurse from Westchester County, N.Y., who says she became disenchanted witnessing "medicine that too often neglected the spirit of the patient." Although she was accepted on the waiting list at Albert Einstein Medical School in the Bronx, N.Y., Lewis-Senior opted to attend UB, saying she prefers to have the designation N.D. rather than M.D. appear after her name. "I will be a doctor, just with a different kind of orientation," she says. Since she studied Western medicine in nursing school, Lewis-Senior says she's been fascinated by some of her unusual, graduate course work. "Acupuncture to me is amazing, the way you can pinpoint a place on the body that affects the whole system," she says.
What impresses her most is the overall philosophy of the program, including work in the clinic, where doctors sometimes spend hours taking patient histories, asking them detailed questions about diet, lifestyle and stress factors.
"It is very important to me to practice medicine that involves the whole person, the mind, body and the spirit," says Lewis-Senior, who often worked with the chronically ill elderly during her nursing career. "I would see people getting lots of medicine, but they weren't really getting well. Their spirits needed attention, too."
Lewis-Senior's goal is to practice medicine in an integrated setting, perhaps in a hospital or clinic, where doctors, herbalists, massage therapists and acupuncturists work side-by-side. Although such clinics remain rare, Lewis-Senior is optimistic about her future opportunities. UB is involved in an integrative clinic at Griffin Hospital in Derby and is in ongoing negotiations with other health care organizations in lower Fairfield County, says Martin. He declined to elaborate citing the ongoing negotiations.
"I think hospitals are going to make this progression. They will have to in part because patients want it," says Lewis-Senior. "But it is the way medicine is going." Dr. Mark Garber, an emergency room physician at Greenwich Hospital who is on the UB faculty, would agree with Lewis-Senior. "There is a lot of good in this kind of medicine that we M.D.s could learn from," says Garber. "The problem with some naturopaths and M.D.s is that they tend to reject each others' thinking and training completely. Both disciplines need to be more tolerant and have more dialogue." One reason traditional doctors have been so skeptical of naturopaths is that much of what they preach has not been studied and their efficacy has not been well-documented in journals most medical doctors accept, says Garber. "I have been interested in alternative medicine for 20 years and I will be the first to tell you I think some of it is just placebo," Garber says. "But look at what we now know about things like Chinese medicine and acupuncture. This medicine has been around for thousands of years and there are a lot of Chinese people on the planet. I figure they are doing something right."
At UB, where Garber teaches emergency medicine, he sees himself as a sort of emissary from the world of allopathic medicine. "Part of my job is to teach them about trauma and various symptoms of a real medical crisis so they understand the difference between an emergency they can handle and one they can't," says Garber. "These are not doctors who you want to see if you just crashed your car or had a heart attack. And I'm not saying anything they wouldn't agree with. Naturopaths are not about treating trauma."
As enthusiastic as he is about the college, Garber says it still has to work out some kinks. "They've had several deans. And they need to expand on their relationships with the area hospitals and probably do more marketing," he says, but adds, "I would say most of their students could be competitive in a typical American medical school. It's a good program I think can only get better."
Naresh Kaushik, president of the college's student body, says proving the efficacy of some so-called alternative therapies is what attracted him to the program. Kaushik, who has a master's degree in public health and is trained as a doctor of Ayurvedic medicine in his native India, was an AIDS educator in Alabama before he enrolled at UB. Working with AIDS patients, he says, "I was often frustrated that while we have some very potent drugs that are extending the life of people with AIDS, we do very little to build their immune system and help prevent the infections that kill them," he says. He notes the National Institutes of Health has a research arm now devoted to alternative therapies, many already used for centuries in Third World countries by traditional healers. "I hope to be part of the work that gives this field more legitimacy in the United States," he says. "And ultimately that helps people live better lives."