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Research on Non-Traditional Medicine Gets New Funding

Non-Traditional Medicine Research Gets New Funding
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Researchers at the New York Botanical Garden are pioneering ethnomedical research.

In Dominican culture, fruit from the guanabana, or soursop, tree is used to make shakes. But for some, the plant serves a very different purpose.

"Leaves of the tree are commonly used to treat high blood pressure," said Dr. Ina Vandebroek, an ethnomedical researcher at the New York Botanical Garden.

Dr. Vandebroek studies plant remedies like this one that are used by Latino and Caribbean immigrants. She said often times, there is little communication between these immigrants and their doctors about the treatments they're taking. Vandebroek said this can be a problem because medicinal plants and prescription drugs don't always mix.

"Because some herbal remedies are known to interact with prescription drugs, it's essential that patients who use traditional remedies disclose this to their doctors, and that physicians have the training to respond with sensitivity to this information."

That's why, as part of a project funded by a $100,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation, Vandebroek hopes to create a training program for health care professionals to learn about traditional health practices so they can better communicate with their patients.

But there's a lot of research that still needs to be done before a program like that can be set up. Vandebroek said the project will first look into the complexity of of the communities' cultural beliefs about what causes illnesses, their perceived symptoms and preferred treatments. And before even that, Vandebroek said there is the daunting task of identifying each plant by it's scientific name so it can be properly studied and researched. She said Latino and Caribbean immigrants often use the same plants, but they have different names and even different uses for each.

The new project will be influential in a new field called urban ethnobotany. This combines medical anthropology, community health and immigrant studies with plant sciences.

Vandebroek said she hopes the results of the new project will increase communication between immigrant communities and their doctors, thus creating a better health environment for immigrants.