Alexandria Hospital has become the first hospital in the Washington area to permit chiropractors to consult with the hospital's staff medical doctors, a hospital spokesman said yesterday.

Chiropractors remain barred from admitting and treating patients at the Alexandria hospital, but they heralded the hospital's policy change as a "positive signal" that those privileges may soon follow.

"It's a groundbreaking decision," said Bernhardt Wruble, a lawyer for a group of Alexandria chiropractors who threatened to sue the Northern Virginia hospital if they were denied privileges there.

Chiropractors are not physicians, but are health practitioners who specialize in relieving pain by manipulating, pressuring and adjusting the spine.

The field has long been at odds with many medical doctors and specialists who consider chiropractors to be practicing an unproved medical discipline.

Wruble argued that denying chiropractors staff positions at the Alexandria Hospital is a violation of federal antitrust laws. "This is the first step toward the inevitable, full privileges," he said.

Thomas Spear, the American Chiropractors Association's director of professional relations, said Alexandria's change in protocol recognizes the trouble hospitals have "in filling their beds in recent years. They know they must look to other medical services."

Spear said the 28,000 licensed chiropractors nationwide offer an additional service. "It's only a matter of time before patients who want this service can receive it in all hospitals."

Until Thursday, when Alexandria Hospital's board of directors adopted the new policy, chiropractors could visit their patients there only as visitors.

Under the new policy, they cannot conduct hands-on examinations, and can confer with the hospital staff only if one of their own patients has been admitted.

The new policy recognizes their advice and permits those recommendations to be recorded on the patient's chart.

Alexandria Hospital spokesman David Norcross said it would be premature to talk about granting chiropractors full privileges and calls the recent decision, "nothing more than an effort to open dialogue between the two professions."

For medical doctors, who have called chiropractics everything from "quackery" to an "unscientific cult," dialogue is a bold step, says Douglas Brown, president of Virginia's Chiropractors Association.

Brown said he views Alexandria's new policy as one that mirrors the growing professional acceptance of chiropractics nationwide.

On July 1, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, the nonprofit Chicago-based group that sets hospital standards, struck a rule from its policy book that effectively barred chiropractors from full-time hospital staff positions.

Jan Shulman, a commission spokesman, said the new standard gives hospitals the option of including chiropractors on their staffs.

"We wanted to allow for more wide-ranging services," she said, adding that the group also was concerned with possible antitrust violations.

"This is not the end of the fight," said Alan L. Tannenbaum, the Alexandria chiropractor who first petitioned the hospital for privileges in l982. "But it is a move in the right direction."

Tannenbaum said that unless the Alexandria Hospital continues to discuss full privileges, "I have no choice but to go ahead with the lawsuit."