Living: Now It's Alternative Medicine on the NHS; the Medical Establishment Has Traditionally Been Sceptical about Alternative Therapy but Now Some Treatments Are Likely to Be Made Available on the NHS. CHARLOTTE WARD Reports

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Byline: CHARLOTTE WARD

OVER the past few years alternative and complementary therapies have become increasingly popular and received widespread publicity.

Who could have missed Geri Halliwell flaunting her new, perfect, yoga-enhanced figure at every opportunity?

And even Cherie Blair was photographed wearing an acupuncture earring and a crystal pendant to ward off stress.

Complementary medicine is basically any theory of disease or method of treatment other than the orthodox science of medicine as taught in medical schools.

The use of alternative practices declined in the 20th century because of the success of orthodox medicine, notably vaccines, antibiotics, diuretics, antidepressants and advances in anaesthesia and surgery.

But interest in complementary therapies has grown again in recent years with trust and satisfaction in the medical establishment at an all-time low.

To date there are thought to be about 50,000 complementary and alternativetherapy practitioners in the UK, carrying out more than 90 different types of treatment.

Although some NHS physiotherapists and doctors are trained to administer acupuncture and GPs can refer patients for alternative treatment, it is the responsibility of local health authorities and individual GPs to decide whether to make such therapies available.

Only about a third of GPs in thiscountry have ever done so, and patients largely have to pay for their treatment.

But a range of complementary medical therapies could soon be made available to all NHS patients with the news that health secretary Alan Milburn has appointed a top academic to investigate ways of licensing and regulating alternative medical practitioners. Those on an approved list could then bid for NHS contracts from GPs.

A spokesperson for Mr Milburn said: 'The Department of Health has thousands of letters every year about complementary medicine and this is the first step to recognising that it does have a role to play within the NHS.

'It won't happen overnight, but regulation should give GPs the confidence and information they need to refer more patients.'

We looked into four therapies likely to be funded on the NHS in the next five years.

ACUPUNCTURE

ACUPUNCTURE is an ancient system of healing developed over thousands of years as part of the traditional medicine of China, Japan and other Eastern countries.

The practitioners claim to restore and maintain health by the insertion of fine needles into acupuncture points just beneath the body surface.

These points are in very specific locations and lie on channels of energy.

Acupuncture could help with specific symptoms or conditions, such as pain, anxiety, arthritis, eczema, sports injuries, hayfever, asthma, migraine, high blood pressure, menstrual disorders, intestinal problems or pregnancy management and delivery.

But the aim of acupuncture is also to treat the whole body and to restore the balance between the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual.

In traditional acupuncture, since all illness is considered the result of an energy imbalance, treatment is also said to benefit almost any ill person as long as the degenerative process in the tissues of the body is not too extensive. …