A new article from the University of New Mexico-Taos shows that rural adults are turning to college level classes in complementary medicine. The study found that the college corridor offers a safety net and a springboard for the underserved, as well as an opportunity to redress health disparities while promoting integrative approaches to health care.

“Higher Education as an Alternative Point of Access to Holistic Health” is being published in the May 2009 issue of theJournal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine(one of the main peer-reviewed journals in the field). The author, Jean Ellis-Sankari, MSSW, LISW, is Associate Professor and Head, Academy of Holistic Health and Human Services, Department of Instruction, UNM-Taos.

“In the context of socioeconomic challenges and a weak safety net, holistic health education may become a substitute for formal health and mental health services. When local services prove inaccessible or culturally inappropriate from students’ viewpoints, they tend to find support through classes that foster wellness,” said Ellis-Sankari.

During the past ten years, the curriculum in Holistic Health and Healing Arts (HHHA) at UNM-Taos has pioneered innovative classes in alternative and complementary medicine and the healing arts for undergraduate students. UNM-Taos has emerged as one of four public universities throughout the United States that has been able to implement such a curriculum at the undergraduate level.

The curriculum includes courses in meditation, yoga, tai chi, reiki, meditative dance, homeopathy, oriental medicine, ayurveda, and massage. Courses emphasize health promotion, disease prevention, stress management, and spirituality.

The new publication is based partly on a UNM-Taos program review during 2006–2007 that used several methods. Quantitative assessment clarified changing course enrollments and completion rates. Qualitative assessment was based on interviews with current students and graduates, a review of their journals from courses, class evaluations, and a questionnaire to elicit students’ reasons for taking holistic health care classes, their experiences within the courses, and suggestions about improving the HHHA curriculum.

Many northern New Mexicans lack access to health services but turn to education as a partial solution to the health care crisis and the disparities in health associated with socioeconomic hierarchies.

Typically, students who attend classes at UNM-Taos are of Hispanic, Native American, or Anglo descent, most are female, and they have an average age of 34 years. Many students live near or below the poverty line, with little or no health insurance.

The evaluation suggested that many students were frustrated with the existing health care system because of its emphasis on allopathic medicine. Some students taking HHHA courses reported lack of access to affordable health care, stating they had no health insurance and could not afford health care even if it were available. Finally, students sought higher education to pursue vocational aspirations through meaningful work.

Facing barriers to access for health services, students from low-income and minority backgrounds took these courses in a nurturing, low-cost environment and learned new health care behaviors and preventive approaches that reduced their dependence on allopathic medicine.