Stop patronising the public over complementary therapy

London: Professor Michael Baum, Emeritus Professor of Surgery, University College London, and 12 other doctors and scientists published an open letter in The Times newspaper on 23 May which was circulated to all 476 NHS Trusts.

This letter was basically an attack upon “Alternative Medicine” and it’s use in the NHS. Baum and colleagues letter to The Times was full of inaccuracies and was poorly researched.

First of all, Baum and colleagues make the mistake of using the term “Alternative Medicine”. This is misleading as this implies that one form of medicine is used instead of another in an NHS setting. In fact, this doesn’t happen and it would be more accurate to describe the adjunct treatments offered as “Complementary Medicine” which works with conventional medicine – not instead of it.

In order to understand what is really going on and then portray an accurate picture of the situation, Baum and colleagues need to first of all get their terminology right. There are many instances where “Complementary Medicine” is used in the NHS – alongside conventional medicine. This includes the use of acupuncture in pain clinics, as just one example. Physiotherapy and massage are examples of treatment modalities that were once considered to be complementary and are now provided as a matter of course within NHS settings.

In addition, there are several NHS homeopathic hospitals that provide an extremely
valuable service to patients. Baum and colleagues imply that these “Alternatives” are “unproven or is proven”.

Again, sadly they are mistaken and really need to look at the research before they undertake a smear campaign such as this. The vast majority of the Complementary Medical treatments available on the NHS are in fact proven to work – however one of the most controversial disciplines on offer is homeopathy and this is the main area that seems to be causing Baum and colleagues some difficulty.

Homeopathic medicine is indeed controversial, as in order for a homeopath
to treat a patient, the person’s individual symptoms have to be taken into account in order to make an individualised prescription. This means that homeopathy does not perform exceptionally well in Random Controlled Trials – where one group of people are all given the same medicine and another group of people are given placebo – or inactive medicine.

This is quite logical and expected – since well all know that no two people are alike and furthermore, no two people ever experience an illness in quite the same way. So, when homeopathic trials are based upon individualised prescriptions we see a very different picture. At the end of 2005 the results of a large six year study of 6,500 patients at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital reported 75% improvement in their health.

There are many trials that support the efficacy of homeopathic medicine
when it is prescribed in the correct manner. One interesting trial in particular was undertaken on people who had had conventional medicine and had found that it had not worked or was unsatisfactory.

Out of the 829 patients questioned – 61% had a substantial improvement in their condition. Baum and Colleagues question the need for provision of complementary
medicine within the NHS – but they seem to have missed some rather important data that illustrates the fact that 70% of GPs feel complementary medicine should be freely available on the NHS . Furthermore research has demonstrated that substantial savings could be made by introducing homeopathy into general practice.

As for the small matter of whether the public feel that complementary medicine should be available on the NHS – one only has to look at the BBC website to see that they have been running a poll in which at time of writing shows that over 12,500 people have made their position clear – over 50% are in favour of Complementary Medicine being provided on the NHS.

So, Baum and colleagues really need to stop patronising the public and
realise that people want these disciplines – because they know that they work. Perhaps Baum and colleagues might like to get on with the job of researching complementary medicine to find out why these helpful disciplines work – and while they are at it perhaps they could look into the reasons why over 40,000 people are killed and over 850,000 injured in the UK each year as a result of conventional medical blunders.