Complementary therapies on the NHS-what does the future hold?

Can you imagine your GP prescribing reiki rather than Prozac or referring you to a homoeopath for asthma? The Government promises a 'patient led' NHS, but can we choose complementary therapies, rather than drugs, asks Amanda Astill?

If you go to your GP, the chances are they'll prescribe a pill to solve your problem, but what if you prefer a more natural approach? With over a fifth of the population spending more than £500million a year on natural therapies, is it time the NHS gave us complementary, alternative and conventional medicine under one roof?

At the moment, most of us have to refer ourselves and pay privately if we want to use complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), even if it's instead of, or alongside, conventional medicine. This recently caused controversy when a woman was denied integrated cancer treatment, that probably would have extended her life, by her local health authority, despite the treatment being supervised by an NHS oncologist. The Bristol Cancer Help Centre set up a fund to support her and called for changes to be made to the NHS to allow people a choice. 'It is essential for people to be given health choices which empower them and promote their own healing processes,' says Pat Turton, director of education at the centre. 'Support at vulnerable moments, such as after chemotherapy, is essential. Our programmes include massage, shiatsu and spiritual healing. I believe we can achieve an integrated health service, but first I'd like to see the NHS acknowledge the importance of what we're doing and look at funding for research.'

It is this issue of research and funding which causes problems with CAM being accepted as part of treatment programmes. 'The normal method is to test the drug, or in this case the therapy, and to repeat the method to produce an identical outcome every time. CAM need to be tested on the way they work on people and no two people will have the exact same outcome,' explains HH integrated medicines adviser Paula Marie of the British Complementary Medicine Association. This is echoed by Shun Au, director of TCM Healthcare, an integrated practice. 'CAM don't always work in rigid scientific trials. Securing funding from the Government will be difficult until a specific CAM research model is developed.' A spokesperson for the British Medical Association summed up the contradiction. 'We need scientific proof that CAM works, but it is difficult for CAM to get grants for research.' So it's a vicious circle. Paula thinks the solution lies within university departments. 'If students start new research protocols for CAM it could lay the groundwork for better research and funding.' A £1million grant given to the Foundation For Integrated Medicine by the King's fund is helping to start the process.

'The current climate towards CAM is different from a few years ago. The public is calling for broader healthcare choices and the new patient-centred NHS needs to deliver them,' says Michael Fox of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine. Paula believes that CAM would be cost-effective for the NHS: 'Patients with, for example, persistent migraines that aren't helped by drugs could be successfully treated by CAM, allowing the GP to divert time and money to where it is needed.'

Although some GPs do refer patients to CAM practitioners, many are unaware of, or resistant to, CAM. Dr George Lewith of the University of Southampton hopes to change this. The university runs a study module in CAM for its third-year medical students, on therapies such as homoeopathy, osteopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy. 'The course is the highest rated special study module and is changing attitudes to the way conventional and complementary practitioners can work together,' says Dr Lewith. The best way to influence GPs is through the patient, says Paula. 'If patients let their doctor know that CAM has helped them, this can change their perception.' A change in the perception of CAM has taken place in the NHS, but don't expect to pick up your reflexology prescription soon. 'The immediate goal is to get CAM better researched and regulated so that GP referrals become the norm,' says Dr Lewith. In the meantime he hopes that complementary and conventional medicine will develop a mutual respect. 'The patient is the person we have at heart. The more information we can share, the better it will be for their wellbeing,' he says.

* Do your bit…
Have you had a positive experience of integrated treatment? The BCMA and HH want to hear from you. Write to us at Here's Health, Greater London House, Hampstead Road, London, NW1 7EJ, or you can e-mail helen.lim@emap.com or info@bcma.co.uk

The royal seal
HRH Prince Charles is the President of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine. 'I believe integrated healthcare is of great benefit to patients, encouraging them to better manage their health. 'The challenge for the NHS is to be more open to these benefits - to say it can't afford integrated healthcare is not a persuasive argument. The NHS needs to be reassured that complementary therapies are being provided by competent practitioners and we are working for this.'

Further information
Foundation for Integrated Medicine: 020 7688 1881 or visit www.fimed.org l BCMA: 0845 345 5977 l Bristol Cancer Help Centre: 0117 980 9500.

Reproduced courtesy of Here's Health

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