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Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) held the school’s first mandatory alternative medical treatments workshop for fourth year students last week.

During the workshop, students were introduced to non-traditional methods of staying healthy, and managing stress and physical pain. Classes included interactive demonstrations in acupuncture, yoga, meditation and even self-hypnosis.

The two-day event was organized by USU in partnership with Samueli Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the science of healing. Though students were given the option to choose the sessions they wanted to attend, their presence at the workshop was mandatory, making it the first time USU has made an experience like this a requirement.

According to Eric Schoomaker, former U.S. Army Surgeon General and Scholar-in-Residence at USU, the workshop served a dual purpose. First, he said, it exposed students to avenues of treatment outside traditional methods, such as acupuncture of the ears, a technique used to relieve pain without medication.

Second, the sessions offered students tools for handling stress and fatigue they may face in their own lives as military doctors.

“The final focus is self-care,” said Schoomaker. “What can students who are going to be future physicians in the military learn about these techniques to care for themselves, because it really starts with oneself. How does meditation, yoga, guided-imagery, and help with sleep assist a future provider who is going to be in a very busy practice, sometimes in some very dangerous and austere parts of the world, care for themselves and their families?”

Dr. Wayne Jonas, M.D., president of the Samueli Institute, agreed self-care was an important part of the motivation in bringing the workshop to USU.

“Unlike surgery, which you can’t practice on yourself, health promotion you actually have to practice on yourself,” said Jonas, “otherwise, you can’t actually deliver it to patients. Health care providers have one of the highest burnout rates, and alcoholism rates are some of the highest in the country. It’s because of the pressure that they’re under - even more so in the military.”

Schoomaker said it doesn’t necessarily matter if the patients are seeking alternative health care from the military health care system to stay healthy; the need for knowledge about it remains the same. For example, in the Human Performance Optimization block of the workshop, the focus is on sleep, movement and nutrition - including supplements.

“We need to appreciate that our patients are using any or all varieties of these treatments,” said Schoomaker. “You don’t have to go to an exchange or base PX to see that nutritional supplements are a multibillion dollar business in this country. Having some insights into good nutrition and how nutritional supplements can help or hinder people [is something] I think people going into military practice need.”

Ensign Ryan Austin, one of the students in the workshop said the overall experience was beneficial. “As a doctor in training, anytime you're taught another treatment modality - given an additional ‘tool in your toolbox’ so to speak - it's a plus,” he explained. “Conventional medicine is wonderful until you run out of ideas for ways to help your patient. If you have some experience with alternative treatment methods in your back pocket you've at least got another avenue to pursue. Even if you don't feel comfortable enough to perform those treatments yourself, you can at least feel good about referring your patient to someone who does.”