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Open Access Research article

Development and implementation of an herbal and natural product elective in undergraduate medical education

Kelly Karpa

Author Affiliations

Department of Pharmacology, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Mailcode R130, 500 University Drive, Hershey, PA, 17033, USA

BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012, 12:57  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-57

Published: 27 April 2012



Medical students have consistently expressed interest in learning about alternative healing modalities, especially herbal and natural products. To fill this void in medical education at our institution, a novel elective was developed and implemented for fourth year medical students. This herbal/natural product course uses guest lecturers, classroom presentations, and active learning mechanisms that include experiential rotations, case-based learning, and team-based learning to increase student knowledge of herbal/natural product safety and efficacy.


Knowledge outcomes were evaluated via administration of a pre- and post-course test (paired student t-test). End-of-course evaluations (Likert-type questions and narrative responses) were used to assess student opinion of knowledge and skills imparted by the elective and overall course content (mean, standard deviation).


Over three academic years, 23 students have enrolled in this elective. More than 60% of participants have been female and nearly half of the students (43%) have pursued residencies in primary care. Completion of the course significantly increased student knowledge of common herbal/natural product mechanisms, uses, adverse effects, and drug-interactions as determined by a pre- and post-course knowledge assessment (45% ± 10% versus 78% ± 6%; p < 0.0001). The course was highly rated by enrollees (overall course quality, 4.6 of 5.0 ± 0.48) who appreciated the variety of activities to which they were exposed and the open classroom discussions that resulted. While students tended to view some alternative medical systems with skepticism, they still believed it was valuable to learn what these modalities encompass.


Development and implementation of a herbal/natural product elective that engages undergraduate medical students through active learning mechanisms and critical analysis of the literature has proven effective in increasing knowledge outcomes and is deemed to be a valuable curricular addition by student participants. In the future, it will be of interest to explore mechanisms for expanding the course to reach a larger number of students within the time, financial, and logistical constraints that currently exist.

Complementary and alternative medicine; Dietary supplements; Herbal; Integrated therapy; Natural product; Undergraduate medical education