Pressure from patients has led to a boom in complementary treatments on the NHS, which surgeries say are much cheaper to provide

There has been a "fundamental shift" in GPs' attitudes to complementary medicine in the past year because of pressure from patients, doctors' representatives say.

There has been a "fundamental shift" in GPs' attitudes to complementary medicine in the past year because of pressure from patients, doctors' representatives say.

The profession is showing a new pragmatism, with doctors prepared to suspend their scientific disbelief in therapies such as homoeopathy in favour of providing patients with what they want.

An estimated one in five GPs now offers some form of complementary medicine and the number is rising. Official backing for the move has come from the Department of Health, which issued a guide to GPs in June advising them on how to buy services from complementary therapists.

Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, said: "There is a new and very different prevailing wind. We are breaking down the boundaries [between orthodox and complementary medicine]. Things are moving fast."

After a slowdown that followed the last election, when the Labour Government moved to end GP fundholding, there has been a new surge of interest in complementary medicine among Primary Care Groups (PCGs) - groups of about 50 GPs set up to buy services for patients together.

Between 20 and 30 PCGs have established contracts with complementary practitioners. With rising workloads and pressure on surgeries, GPs are trying to help patients in ways that are cheap and simple to provide and do not require medical intervention.

The Harrow East and Kingsbury PCG, covering 100,000 patients in and near north-west London, is investing £40,000 a year in two therapies: yoga for people with back problems and autogenic relaxation training for stress and depression.

Autogenic training involves a series of eight lessons in which patients are taught how to relax. Yoga, also taught in eight lessons, focuses on exercises to improve posture and ease the spine. Both will be provided for patients of GPs in the area on the NHS at the Edgware Community Hospital.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, GP chairman of the Harrow PCG, said: "These illnesses [stress and back pain] consume huge resources and are very unsatisfactorily catered for. The strength of complementary medicine is that it offers patients the chance to take responsibility for their own health and reduce their dependency on healthcare staff. We are spending a pittance, yet it will stretch to treating so many more patients than we could with conventional medicine."

But the development was criticised by Edzard Ernst, Britain's only professor of complementary medicine, at the University of Exeter. "It is very strongly my impression that GPs are now prepared to put up with less proof of complementary medicine and that they might provide therapies just because patients want them. You can call that pragmatism, but I call it bad science."

By 2004, when all PCGs are due to become NHS trusts, patients will have a controlling interest on their boards and could demand more complementary medicine. Surveys show that 20 per cent of people in Britain have tried complementary medicine in the last year, compared with 42 per cent in America and 67 per cent in Germany.