HARLEM — As a hospital patient care technician, Ron Thomas, 40, sees the flaws in traditional medicine.
"In America, we are more focused on prescriptions and surgery, which have their place, but it's all we know," he said.
That's why Thomas is one of the first students to enroll in the New York College of Health Professions' new programs at Riverside Church in Harlem. The college has had programs in Syosset, Long Island for decades, but there was a demand for the classes in the city.
Opened this fall, the school offers an associates degree in occupational studies and a bachelor of professional studies in acupuncture. Students study massage, acupuncture and other aspects of holistic medicine such as tai chi.
Holistic medicine is a fast growing field that is becoming more accepted by Americans, experts say. Massage therapy was a $16 to $20 billion industry in 2009 and employment as a massage therapist is expected to jump 19 percent by 2018.
Approximately 38 percent of adults use some form of alternative medicine. More and more insurance plans are paying for alternative treatments.
The options for school graduates are varied, and include opening their own businesses, working on cruise ships and for sports teams. More hospitals are also starting to utilize holistic or alternative medicine, said program administrator Cheryl Chandler.
A lot of students at the school are looking to change careers.
"There is always a demand in the health field. No one is going to turn down a massage," said Mary Roda, executive director of admissions and student services.
At the massage class, Leslie Brown, a graduate of the program and a licensed massage therapist, instructed students on how to position themselves as they practiced their techniques on fellow students.
"Breathe from the belly," she told one student as he massaged behind a subject's ears.
"People want to take more responsibility for their own health," said Brown.
Joseph Cheung, the director of physical arts, taught students a tai chi and qi dong class, a regular part of the curriculum.
"If they are not healthy they can't do their job. They have to understand the nature of energy," he said.
In the class, he explained the benefits of tai chi and qi dong as a lifelong, low impact exercise that people of any age or physical condition can participate in.
Suzanne Alleyene, a personal trainer, is studying massage and acupuncture.
She said the demand for classes meant that "many people are being proactive with their health."
"This school is so spiritual. They give you the whole picture. Even the way they teach you is so organized," said Alleyene.
Thomas says he once planned on attending medical school but now sees himself as an entrepreneur with his own business. Making a living isn't his only objective.
"The whole goal for me is to make people feel better," Thomas said.