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Two professors given first Integrative Medicine in Residency Award

Alex McIntyre

The UA College of Medicine in Tucson, Ariz.

As holistic approaches are becoming increasingly accepted in Western medicine, the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine has taken steps to recognize two professors who have worked integrative medicine into conventional medical education. On April 2, the center awarded Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and Dr. Andrea Gordon with its first-ever Integrative Medicine in Residency Innovation Award.

Ranjbar is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Tucson. She is responsible for creating the first integrative medicine in psychiatry training program in the nation, leading to a sprawl of similar programs to other schools such as the University of New Mexico and the University of South Florida.

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“She has created an immense number of innovations, a new clinic and she has been collaborating and creating enthusiasm with psychiatry residencies around the country who are also interested, so we now have multiple residencies in psychiatry who are incorporating this novel curriculum,” said Mari Ricker, the director of the Integrative Medicine in Residency Program at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.

Gordon is an associate professor in family medicine and the director of integrative medicine at the Family Medicine Residency at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Gordon received the award for her work in helping to develop the integrative medicine approach curriculum in the Tufts University Residency Program. 

“She really has been making incremental changes in the culture of their residency,” Ricker said. “She has been taking what really could be seen as a tacked-on curriculum of integrative medicine and has really made it deeply embedded into the family medicine training.”

Without much administrative funding, Gordon worked to make holistic approaches to medicine an integral part of family medicine. She is passionate about doctors becoming knowledgeable and literate in a wider variety of approaches to care. 

“If you’re a family doc, you don’t get to say not my job, … you say, ‘I can find out or help you find someone who can work with us to find a different approach,'” Gordon said.

Ranjbar’s integrative medicine journey began at a young age. Living in Iran until the age of 12, she accompanied her mother through a variety of autoimmune issues which were remedied in a variety of ways, from conventional medicine to herbal treatment, acupuncture, and nutritional adjustments.

“I grew up from ages 2 through 11 basically getting an integrative medicine education where no other kid got to see medicine as so comprehensive and holistic as I did,” Ranjbar said.

After moving to the U.S. at age 12, Ranjbar continued to experience the world of integrative medicine by accompanying her father and stepmother during visits to an integrative medicine doctor, where she learned about practices like yoga and meditation. Eventually, her growing fascination with holistic approaches to medicine was put on halt throughout most of her medical education at the University of Virginia. 

“Medical school was really, really hard because I had to see medicine the way that it is taught, which at that time was not integrative,” Ranjbar said. “We are learning more and more that medicine encompasses so many more medications, surgery and what happens in the tissue … there’s more to us than that.” 

After medical school, Ranjbar went into family medicine because it was the most potentially holistic-minded field. During this time, she dealt with a long love-hate relationship with medicine, burgeoning depression and an array of personal struggles, which led her to leave medicine for a span of five years. 

Over these five years, Ranjbar learned a lot about dealing with her struggles through integrative medicine —both conventional medications and psychotherapies — as well as more holistic approaches, including mind-body medicine approaches such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback, music, dance, as well as nutrition and supplements, among others. Ranjbar describes these five years as a “humbling breakdown that was also a breakthrough — a healing crisis and journey.”

“I had to acknowledge that I needed healing before I could help anyone else,” Ranjbar said. 

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As she began to regain her own sense of health, she also worked in research at Yale University and volunteered through the International Rescue Committee in New Haven, Conn., which led to fostering three children for a period of time. Having regained her health and experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end of healthcare, she returned to medicine with psychiatry residency at the UA from 2009-12, which was the beginning of her UA journey. 

Gordon discovered her passion for integrative medicine in residency. Similarly to Ranjbar, Gordon had the realization that there is much more to medicine and healing than what is conventionally taught in medical school. At the same time, she began practicing tai chi and expanding her knowledge of Chinese medicine and energy medicine. 

After completing her residency program, Gordon began a fellowship in faculty development at the University of Pittsburgh with a project on therapeutic touch, a form of energy medicine. Later, Gordon’s work brought her to a variety of different states such as Washington, Connecticut and back to Pennsylvania, where she began doing integrative medicine consults. She also participated in the UA Fellowship in Integrative Medicine remotely. 

Since moving again to start her integrative medicine teaching career at Tufts University, Gordon has also been involved in starting Integrative Medicine for the Underserved, an organization dedicated to promoting the accessibility of integrative medicine for all and ensuring equity in health care among classes and races.

Gordon takes pride in being recognized by the UA for her impactful work in integrative medicine. 

“It is very significant to me because I have so much respect for the Arizona program as the first integrative medicine fellowship in the first place, and the first program to really try and reach out to all kinds of doctors and especially family medicine doctors, with the same vision that this is what we do in primary care, and this is core to being a good doctor,” Gordon said.

Ranjbar sees the award as an indication of a more holistic and inclusive mental health care system, in which a variety of factors such as genetics, biology, lifestyle, traumas, strengths, cultures and beliefs are more recognized. She sees it as a step toward a system where people can find a physician who is trained to meet them from a comprehensive, whole-person perspective. 

“The award means to me that, the world is, on some level, recognizing the importance of a holistic approach to mental health — that our future psychiatrists need to be trained that way and that our communities deserve access to such care,” Ranjbar said.

The UA’s own Integrative Medicine in Residency Program is focused on providing a holistic knowledge to primary care residents. Beginning in 2008, the 200-hour online curriculum has been available to residents across the nation and has been recognized for its innovative and revolutionary nature.

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