Post Debate: Alternative Therapists Outnumbering GPs; One in Five of Us Has Now Tried Some Form of Alternative Medicine. Helen Gabriel Asks If Its Continuing Growth in Popularity Is a Good Thing

The Birmingham Post (England), August 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Post Debate: Alternative Therapists Outnumbering GPs; One in Five of Us Has Now Tried Some Form of Alternative Medicine. Helen Gabriel Asks If Its Continuing Growth in Popularity Is a Good Thing


Byline: Helen Gabriel

There are more practitioners of alternative medicine working in the UK than GPs.

More than 47,000 people are offering to stick pins in your flesh, send you into a trance or pump you with medicine.

But the vast majority of practitioners can operate without qualifications. So what is alternative medicine?

It is notoriously difficult to define, partly because it includes such a wide spectrum of practices - acupuncturists, reflexologists, homeopaths, osteopaths and herbalists - but also because some practitioners refuse to accept there is anything 'alternative' about such therapies in the first place.

They say 'alternative medicine' is simply medicine that has not been proven to the clinical standards of modern western medicine, or undervalued therapies that have been used successfully for thousand of years.

Another problem in defining this type of medicine is the lack of regulation - while conventional medicine can only be practised by a doctor who has been to medical school, in many cases anyone can set up shop as an alternative practitioner.

But there has been a move towards voluntary regulation in recent years, with professional councils accounting for the competency of practitioners.

But this does not prove that the medicine works and can cause further confusion, with research by Exeter University finding there were 150 different regulating bodies for complementary therapies.

The internet has had a huge impact on the number of people using alternative therapies, with research suggesting that 60 per cent of internet users look for health information - mainly in relation to mental health issues, allergies and cancer.

Some doctors fear that patients seeking alternative medicine in this way could be misled into believing they are being cured when little or no scientific evidence exists to support the effectiveness of the treatments on offer. Others believe that alternative medicine is steeped in bad science and is practised by charlatans or the deluded.

Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe - there are dangers in using acupuncture needles inappropriately, and there are dangers in using Chinese herbs that have hypoxins in them that can damage your liver. But practitioners say there are also dangers in conventional medicine, with people becoming immune to drugs or being prescribed the wrong treatments.

Alternative medicine is perhaps best considered as complementary medicine, because few people abandon conventional medicines but use the two in combination. Studies have shown that about 80 per cent of those who use alternative therapies also stick to their conventional treatments.

Dr Jonathan Monckton, director of the UK Research Council for Complementary Medicine, said: "The exclusion of conventional treatment is the danger in these cases, not the therapy itself.

"It is not a rejection of conventional medicine.

"It's more inspired by fact that the limitations of conventional medicine are becoming more apparent.

"Years ago conventional medicine was seen to be infallible, but the new age of communication has shown that certain chronic conditions may best be served by the more palliative effects of complementary therapies."

As alternative medicine becomes more widely accepted there is now freer access to alternative medicine through the NHS, although most is still available only privately.

The Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health hopes to have signed up 150 GPs to its controversial new scheme by October.

Those who join will become "associates" of the foundation and are expected to offer a wide range of herbal and other alternative treatments to their patients

Some recommended websites for researching alternative medicine

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative

Medicine: http://nccam. …

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