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Careers in Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Overview


From the shamans and physician-philosophers of antiquity to contemporary naturopaths, healers of all kinds offer a multitude of cures for all sorts of ailments. In many parts of the world, these practices are accepted without reservation and remain the primary vehicle for medical care. However, although some of these practices--acupuncture, for example--have gained limited acceptance by Western medical authorities--most remain on the fringes of Western medicine.

Usually referred to as ?complementary/alternative medicine? (CAM) in Europe, North America, and Australia and as ?traditional medicine? (TRM) in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (see sidebar on the World Health Organization?s definition of CAM and TRM), these systems include folk medicine (i.e., traditional Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and Unani medicine from the Middle East), herbal medicine, chiropractic, acupuncture, naturopathy, homeopathy, iridology, and massage therapy, to name a few.

The World Health Organization?s Definition of CAM and TRM

Complementary/Alternative Medicine (CAM)

The terms "complementary medicine" or "alternative medicine" are used inter-changeably with traditional medicine in some countries. They refer to a broad set of health care practices that are not part of that country's own tradition and are not integrated into the dominant health care system.

Traditional Medicine (TRM)

Traditional medicine is the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.

It is worth noting, of course that what is called ?complementary? or ?alternative? in one country may be ?traditional? or ?conventional? in another. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America in particular, traditional medicine is an integral part of primary health care. According to the World Health Organization, ?in some African countries, up to 80%--and in India 65%--of the population depends on traditional medicine to help meet their health care needs.? In fact, even in some developed countries, much of today?s alternative or complementary medicine was mainstream practice not so long ago.

Moreover, folk medicine has played a substantial role in the development of modern pharmacology. Compounds derived from medicinal plants have served as molecular templates for propriety drugs that are now used worldwide. Over 120 pharmaceutical products that are currently in use are of plant origin, and many were discovered on the basis of traditional cures. One of the best known of these derivatives is the antimalarial drug artemisinin, the biotech moniker for the sweet wormwood plant that the Chinese have been using for ages to subdue fever. ?Rediscoveries? of folk remedies such as this have inspired scientists worldwide to work on other remedies whose power to cure has been known to humans for millennia.

In recent years, a resurgence of interest has prompted governments, industries, and institutions to step up their efforts into the research and development of CAM. In the United States, the National Institutes Of Health is pouring some US$220 million into research and training in CAM. Over in the Asian hotbeds of traditional medicine--Hong Kong, China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia--the enthusiasm and commitment is no less. Hong Kong, which is busy positioning itself as an international hub for the commercial development of Chinese medicine, has set up the Institute of Chinese Medicine to steer and strengthen its modernization and further development. And Taiwan has unveiled a US$100 million plan to turn itself to a ?traditional Chinese medicine technology island? by 2006.

Just what are all these investments and efforts about? Is modern science poised to unlock the secrets of age-old remedies amassed in different civilizations? many treasure chests? Is CAM finally gaining the respectability of orthodox medicine, or is all the energy simply the product of marketing and hype for the making of a new generation of alternative medicines? That?s not entirely clear yet, but one thing is certain: CAM is here to stay.

So, what?s in store for the young scientists and CAM enthusiasts of today? How could they transfer skills gained during their graduate training into a career in the CAM industry? Where could they undertake specific training in CAM research and development? And where are the funds?

In this month?s global feature, Next Wave tries to answer these questions. And it takes a peek into what?s brewing in the new world of CAM. Throughout the month, we?ll bring you firsthand accounts of scientists who have moved or are in the process of moving into CAM research, development, or practice, as well as stories of Western-trained doctors who have integrated CAM into their practices and of CAM practitioners who have been there all along. In addition, we will also bring you news on funding for CAM research and development and expert views on upcoming growth areas in CAM that are likely to create new career opportunities for scientists in the years ahead.

And last but not least, for those interested in additional information, Next Wave?s editorial staff has gathered together links to the best CAM resources from across the globe.

So, read on. ...

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