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Rob McCaleb educates physicians about herbs at Harvard

In March, HRF President Rob McCaleb made his annual trip to Boston to teach physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and other health care practitioners about the research supporting the medicinal use of herbs at the Harvard Medical School Symposium on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The Harvard course is the nation's most successful continuing education program on complementary therapies, and attracted more than 600 health practitioners this year. After four years of teaching at the symposium, McCaleb has observed a noticeable shift in the attitude of attendees. "In past years, the voices of many of the doctors were skeptical, negative, and challenging. Now there is much more openness, and a determination by doctors to help empower and educate patients and themselves about natural health care options," McCaleb commented. Andrew Weil, MD, another faculty member at the symposium, agreed that as the clinical evidence on herbs grows, physicians have become more accepting.

McCaleb presented a 1 1/2 hour class called "Botanical Medicine: Information Resources" at two different times during the symposium. HRF's new book The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs assumed a central place in the discussion, as McCaleb spoke about the clinical research on herbs, reliable information sources and resources, and methods for evaluating the quality of information. Harvard Medical School has already purchased 250 copies of the book for its programs. According to McCaleb, "The practitioners at the symposium were impressed with the format of the book because it includes both traditional information and the latest research, allowing readers to weigh the evidence within their own belief systems. Some of their patients are more interested in the longstanding uses of plants, while others are only convinced by the science behind the herbs." McCaleb also spent some time comparing and contrasting the quality of research on herbal medicines and pharmaceutical drugs, and challenged some common assumptions about drug approval and research in the United States.

The curriculum for the four-day Harvard course was designed to give practitioners a basic understanding of complementary medicine therapies, a scientific evaluation of the efficacy and safety of these therapies, guidelines for recommending specific techniques to patients, and an understanding of the legal, ethical, and financial aspects of various therapies. The course also seeks to foster better communication about complementary therapies between patients and conventional health care providers.

- Krista Morien

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