Medical students have a lot to learn, and not all of it is in today’s textbooks. One glaring omission in the curriculum, according to second-year student Rachel Friedman and third-year student Joey Cousin, is exposure to alternative therapies such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, massage and homeopathy. As co-organizers of the Yale Integrative Medicine Student Association (YIMSA), that’s something the two are working to change.

Originally naming the group the Yale Alternative Medicine Student Association, the handful of students who founded it two years ago soon replaced “alternative” with “integrative” to reflect their intentions more accurately. “We’re not exploring alternatives to our profession,” said Friedman. “What we’re interested in is having one medicine that is open-minded and that looks at anything that can possibly help patients.”

Although integrative medicine still has quack status in the minds of some physicians, the tide is turning. With research programs in major medical schools across the country investigating treatment efficacy, often with funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the field is beginning to gain validity. But part of the problem, Friedman and Cousin say, is that the definition of these therapies is still nebulous. “Basically, it’s anything that isn’t currently taught in medical school,” said Friedman, which means that acupuncture is lumped together with crystals, psychic healers and the latest vitamin fad.

Still, patients are turning to such treatments with increasing frequency. “Outside of whether these therapies work or not,” said Friedman, “our first goal is to educate students on what’s out there—what kinds of practitioners we’re going to encounter who are treating our patients, and what we need to know about those treatments.”

To that end, YIMSA organizes a monthly lecture series at which different practitioners present not just the backgrounds of their modalities, but also what a doctor needs to know about them. The idea, said Margaret A. Drickamer, M.D., associate professor of medicine (geriatrics) and the group’s faculty advisor, is “not to destroy alternative medicine or to promote it, but simply to look at it. ... They’re learning to look at nontraditional medicine, and to see that there are both value and problems in that.”

The series was well-attended last year, Cousin said, with 20 to 30 students coming to each talk. This year Cousin and Friedman plan to publicize the talks more widely to encourage broader participation by students across health disciplines. Other events have been more interactive. Friedman, who is licensed as a massage practitioner in California, organized a six-week medical massage course to run concurrently with first-year gross anatomy, hoping that massaging each other will strengthen students’ memorization of muscle groups. The semester finished with a full day dedicated to a topic universally known to medical students: stress. Students were invited to experience massage, Reiki, reflexology and other therapies during a drop-in health fair. After dinner, YIMSA hosted an expert panel, the “Science of Stress,” in which doctors and integrative medicine practitioners offered a healer’s perspective on the biology and psychology of stress.

Ultimately, YIMSA’s goal is to change the curriculum to incorporate training in integrative therapies. Progress on this front has been slow, but Friedman is trying to build a faculty advisory committee to steer the process. “My sense is that there are many individuals among the faculty who support change, but there hasn’t been any umbrella” to unite them, she said.