Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Alternative Medicine - Trick or Treat?

Alternative medicine is a major industry with an annual turnover of 1.6 billion pounds, and there's a desperate need for regulation of the thousands of practitioners, free to use whatever therapy they like. There are already Statutory Registers for Osteopaths and Chiropractors and no-one can legally call themselves an osteopath or chiropractor unless they belong to one of these bodies. Registration requires a high level of training, 4-5 years of studying and the ability to demonstrate competence, effectiveness and safety. Unfortunately the law does not prevent unregistered practitioners from using these therapies as long as they call themselves something different - osteomyologist, manipulative therapist, spinal therapist and sports therapist are some of the most popular.

As far as acupuncturists, herbalists, homeopaths, naturopaths and almost every other ...path and ...ologist you can think of is concerned, they can do whatever they like. Though there are excellent training courses and professional registers for some organisations, you don't have to go on any course, join any professional body or even read a book to start up a business in your back room and take money from the public.

The Queen never travels without her box of homeopathic medicines. Prince Charles is seriously committed to natural therapies and introduced the term "complementary medicine". The late Princess of Wales adopted some of the weirdest treatments, Cherie Blair has her own health guru and every celebrity, film star, or pop singer has a personal trainer. Where the famous lead, the public follows, and it's alarming how many of these self-styled experts do not have even the most basic medical knowledge. Yet their numbers continue to increase at an amazing rate. Weekend courses, correspondence courses, bogus qualifications bought over the internet, private training with a practitioner, previous experience as a dancer, PE teacher, cook, masseur or beauty therapist, or a year or two at a local college of further education, appears to be enough training to take on the responsibility of giving the public medical advice and treatment for their health problems.

Three years ago I interviewed the Prime Minister for my radio show on London's LBC and amongst other things asked him what plans the Government had for statutory registration of all complementary medicine practitioners in order to protect the public from poorly qualified and bogus therapists. Not surprisingly there weren't any.

Now, following EC demands for stricter controls of herbal medicines and herbalists as well as vitamin and mineral supplements, and increasing publicity about the risks of some natural remedies, there is an urgent need for the Government to act quickly. They've already done it for osteopaths and chiropractors and it is irresponsible of them to allow continuing exploitation of the public. In many instances it's the desperate patients with chronic illnesses and those with terminal or incurable diseases who look outside of orthodox medicine for help. And whilst it's true that most complementary therapies are unlikely to cause direct harm, it's the lack of diagnostic skills that leads to serious problems. Patients may delay getting medical advice, they sometimes stop, and are even encouraged to stop taking conventional medication, or they could be following some irrational dietary programme that deprives them of essential nutrients.

Dr. Brian Kliger, Professor of Environmental and Health Studies, has been involved in the development and evolution of degree and post-graduate courses in osteopathy and chiropractic as well as in other health professions. He's also the retired Principal of the Anglo-European College of Chiropractic and his main worry is that of public safety. "It's a danger to the public when anyone can put a name plate on their door and claim to have clinical competence which they might not have," says Professor Kliger. "All health professions should have statutory protection of their title and a registration process which is linked to standards of professional behaviour and academic training."

20% of the population turn to complementary therapies each year and if you're one of them
you must take sensible precautions and the first is to make sure that you have an accurate medical diagnosis of the problem and discuss the therapy you're going to try with your specialist or GP. Secondly, you must check and double check on the qualifications of the practitioner. There are many thousands of people offering all sorts of weird and wonderful therapies, from pendulums to crystals, magnetic therapy to Hopi ear candles, and hot stones to zero balancing. Osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, medical herbalists, and medically trained homoeopaths are all easy to check up on. But all the others are much more difficult, and trusting your health to the vagaries of someone doing allergy tests in a health food shop, who's had a weekend course in Wales, or spent a few days training with an unqualified manipulator in Manchester, is irresponsible.

When it comes to children the problems can be even more serious. A couple of years ago a six month old baby died needlessly just because his father preferred to use alternative medicine rather than any form of conventional treatment. Unbelievably, the child's father is an alternative practitioner and not alone in his fanatical rejection of orthodox medicine. This isn't alternative, it's lunatic. Any mature right-minded adult is at liberty to choose or reject whatever form of health care system they like, but to impose those choices on babies and children can have no moral justification. There is no such thing as alternative medicine, but only good medicine and bad medicine. And that's true on both sides of the fence. Any medicine that lets people die when life saving treatment is available is bad.

What appals me is the number of otherwise intelligent people who put their health and their lives in the hands of the lunatic fringe of alternative practitioners who are convinced that their particular brand of therapy is the miraculous cure-all for every illness from acne to cancer. They brainwash their patients into believing that even setting foot in a conventional doctor's waiting room, let alone taking an aspirin or antibiotic, will totally destroy the benefits of alternative therapy.

Bogus allergy therapists who examine locks of hair, dangle pendulums over spots of blood, point a twitching finger at a particular food or connect you to a computer that reveals all; self-styled nutritionists who prescribe such extreme diets that their patients suffer severe nutritional deprivation and then sell them a carrier bag full of very expensive vitamin pills; alternative cancer therapists who believe in nothing but coffee enemas, grapes and purified water; breatharians who maintain that real health can only be achieved by the total avoidance of food; psychic surgeons who magically remove growths and tumours from their patient's bodies. There are practitioners whose diagnosis is based exclusively on the position of spots in the iris of the eye, some use analysis of a spot of blood or a lock of hair. You can even have a telephone consultation with a therapist who measures the vibrational energy in your voice before prescribing a variety of pills, potions and diets. These are questionable and dubious practices which have no place in the world of genuine caring and professional complementary medicine.

Dr. Ian Drysdale, Principal of the British College of Osteopathic Medicine, insists that minimum standards of clinical experience are essential in undergraduate training if the qualified practitioner is going to learn safety and competence. "Legislation now means that all institutions that graduate osteopaths must have their clinical programmes accredited and this type of external quality assurance should be mandatory for anyone claiming to train complementary therapists," says Dr. Drysdale. "I'm concerned as both an academic and a professional practitioner that individuals may be treating patients without having the knowledge that the public expects and deserves."

Before you put yourself or your child into the hands of any therapist, ask yourself a simple question - does this treatment contain a grain of common sense, a grain of science or a grain of truth? None but the lunatic would deny the enormous benefits of modern medicine or the age old wonders of traditional therapies, herbs and healing foods. The sane path is to choose the appropriate treatment for the condition. It may be orthodox, complementary or, best of all, an integrated combination of both.

The millions of people who use complementary medicine is all that's saving the NHS from total collapse, so isn't it time the Government gave them the protection they deserve.


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