Giants of Western medicine - National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Massachusetts General Hospital - partner with New England School of Acupuncture with $1 million to weigh efficacy of acupuncture, tai chi and Chinese herbal medicine.
New England School of Acupuncture
On pins and needles: giants of Western medicine take a closer look at the power of acupuncture and put real money on the line.
Seeking an alternative to the "rat race," Marge Sommerling traded a 12-year career in TV news for a life as an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. Likewise, Ronald Williams turned his construction hard hat in for a lab coat and his own cache of acupuncture needles.
Like hundreds of others over the past 27 years, Sommerling and Williams both found an "alternative" at the New England School of Acupuncture (NESA) in Watertown, Massachusetts -- the first school of its kind in America.
Founded in 1975 by James Tin Yau So, NESA was at the forefront of the exploding growth in complimentary and alternative medical practice in the U.S. In fact, some modern acupuncture texts were developed from copious notes taken by So's early students.
NESA is still making waves -- only now it's not just students and patients who are beating a path to its doors. So, too, are the heavies of Western medical science -- the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and Massachusetts General Hospital -- all hoping to quantify the effectiveness of a range of alternative treatments and then introduce them in the training and practices of Western doctors.
Over the next two years, NESA's faculty, working with top names in Boston-area medical research, will weigh in on the efficacy of acupuncture, tai chi and Chinese herbal medicine in treating chronic conditions such as hypertension, stroke symptoms, and heart failure. Certain balance disorders and repetitive stress injuries are also being studied. The research projects have attracted more than $1 million in private and federal funding to the NESA community.
According to NESA's interim president, Evelyn Fowler, studying complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) using accepted scientific methods is necessary in order for the Western medical community to accept and validate this field.
"There was a time when researchers from institutes such as Harvard Medical School would not have even thought about approaching NESA,' says Fowler. "But as Oriental medicine has become more acceptable and sought out by consumers, the Western science world is saying, they must be doing something right'. That's why we need this research."
Major projects include:
* A $460,000 grant awarded to NESA to look at the impact of acupuncture in stroke patient rehabilitation. NESA researchers, in collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School, have designed a rigorous, controlled study that will compare the effects of real acupuncture to sham acupuncture. The potential benefits of acupuncture will be evaluated with state-of --the-art methods including computerized imaging of gait and limb movements and neuro-imaging of the brain (MRI).
* A multi-million dollar NIH grant funding a study by researchers at the New England Research Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and NESA to measure the effects of acupuncture in treating mild to moderate hypertension. The trial, already underway, is one of the largest acupuncture trials ever conducted in the West, with hundreds of patients participating over three years.
* The NIH awarded another $1.5 million the Tufts School of Medicine and NESA to integrate evidence-based complementary medicine into Western medical education. As part of this project, NESA's database of scientific studies in Oriental medicine will be electronically linked to the Tufts Medical library, and an electronic resource center focusing on the fundamentals of Chinese medicine and its scientific basis is being written and will be housed in Tufts' state-of-the-art electronic Health Science Data Base which has links to the entire Tufts curriculum. Tufts students can even get first-hand exposure to Oriental medicine in practice through internships at NESA's acupuncture and Chinese herbal clinics.
"This kind of exchange, both in the scientific data and the learning opportunities, is a totally new approach, giving students of each discipline the broadest view of options for treating any number of conditions," says NESA's director of research, Peter Wayne.
Interestingly, notes Wayne, NESA's two-year old research program -- designed to follow rigorous Western standards -- is not without controversy at NESA itself. "Just as alternative therapies are viewed with suspicion by many in Western medicine, some members of the NESA community cautiously hold Western medical research and practice at arm's length." He adds, "This skepticism can be productive, challenging us to ask the relevant questions."
While the jury is still out on much of this research, one outcome is already clear: traditional Chinese medicine is fast becoming more than just "alternative" in the West. As the tangible facts roll in, more integrated approaches to health care can't be far behind.
About NESA: The only accredited acupuncture and oriental medical school in New England, NESA enrolls 250-270 students. Students must have a bachelor's degree to be admitted and the school grants two masters degrees: the Master of Acupuncture (M.Ac.) and the Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MAOM). Each program takes at least three years to complete. The average age of NESA students is 34; the age range is 20 to 60. Their backgrounds include lay, accounting, medicine, nursing, and massage therapy. Recent trends show more younger students are choosing acupuncture as a career, further evidence of the "mainstreaming" of CAM.
New England School of Acupuncture
40 Belmont St., Watertown, MA 02472
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