In The Good Health pages last week a number of GPs revealed how they also practised alternative medicine, from homeopathy to naturopathy, and used this on their patients.
This prompted much debate, for it apparently goes against the tide of medical opinion. For instance, the British Medical Association and the Commons Science and Technology Committee have said that the NHS should stop funding treatment by homeopathy: cutbacks are essential across the board and so money should not be poured into treatments for which there is no clear evidence of benefit.
Many regard homeopathy, which uses substances diluted many times in water to treat patients, as bogus. However, many GPs are members of the Faculty of Homeopathy and find it of value in some patients, on some occasions, for some types of conditions. In fact, the doctors featured last week are not an isolated group — many GPs regularly use treatments such as osteopathy, massage, homeopathy and reflexology.
This is because all of us see conditions every day — take irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia as examples — where conventional medicine does not have much to offer.
The sceptics say the GP is doing little more than harnessing the placebo effect (placebo: Latin for ‘I will please’) and there has been much science applied to researching this.
There have even been studies to show that doctors, by their manner and attitude alone, can improve patient outcomes: the art of medicine as opposed to the science.
But I believe there is even more to this than might, at first, be apparent.
We have known for years that the immune system is highly influenced by mood and feelings — and therefore, I would argue, by our expectations. The study of this is the world of psychoneuroimmunology.
We are also all aware that the brain is the most complex machine known to man — far more complicated than any computer yet devised. So why should we be mystified, or sceptical, when we, maybe in somewhat crude and ill-understood ways, attempt to influence those mechanisms?
That, often, is what complementary or alternative medicine is attempting to do, despite the various explanations that the practitioners offer us.
And, never forget the rule of Hippocrates: primum non nocere — first do no harm.
Alternative medicine, with its gentle approach, fits in well with this rule, as long as it is practised responsibly.
When buying a herbal medicine, make sure that it has a THR logo/kite mark or registration number to ensure that it has been independently checked for safety and quality.
Dr Dick Middleton, Technical Director at Schwabe Pharma UK says,
“We are thrilled that our range of herbal medicines is among the first to be registered under the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) Scheme, as this is an exciting step forward for the natural health industry. Traditional use of these herbs over more than 30 years has shown that consumers throughout the UK and Europe value these herbal products and find them helpful in managing their healthcare needs. Disillusionment with conventional medicine treatments has led to increasing consumer interest in Complementary Medicine and the availability of these products gives consumers more choice and ensures that what they are buying meets European pharmaceutical standards of quality and safety and has appropriate and independently assessed consumer information on the pack and in the leaflet.”