A south London hospital will today launch Britain's first alternative therapy clinic on the National Health Service.

The Complementary Therapy and Research Centre at Lewisham Hospital will provide acupuncture, home-

opathy and osteopathy to patients referred there by GPs. In its first year it is expected to cost the south-east London health authority pounds 30,000.

Robin Stott, consultant physician and medical director of the Lewisham hospital NHS trust, has fought a four-year campaign to open the clinic.

Dr Stott, who has trained in conventional Western and Chinese medicine, said yesterday: 'There is an increasing need for the two to come together. Many people seek referrals to complementary therapies.' He added that some GP surgeries already have complementary therapists attached to them.

Before setting up the centre, the hospital surveyed local practitioners: 92 per cent said they would use the unit, while half already referred patients to complementary therapists in the private sector.

The treatments on offer are likely to help asthma, back pain, digestive disorders, skin problems and gynaecological problems.

'We hope people who would not have been able to afford such therapies will now be able to get them,' said Dr Stott.

The service is available only to patients in the Lambeth, Southwark or Lewisham areas, but fundholding GPs outside can buy the services. All five practitioners at the centre have undergone the equivalent of three years' full- time training, fulfil registration requirements for the appro-priate professional organisation and are insured.

Janet Richardson, who manages the research unit at the hospital, said it was important these services were offered on the NHS.

'But we still need to address the issues of training and qualifications. We also need to have the GP as gatekeeper.' The centre will also carry out research into the effectiveness of the treatments.

The three treatments on offer are some of the more mainstream therapies. 'As such, they are much more acceptable to the medical profession,' said Ms Richardson.

Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine developed more than 2,000 years ago. It uses sterilised

disposable needles to stimulate areas of the body and alter the way organs function.

Homeopathy uses natural substances to treat the whole person, rather than just the

presenting symptoms, and osteopathy involves the manipulation of the body, adjusting posture and exercise to improve circulation and to restore muscle tone.

Julie Hunt, 31, a district nurse manager from Welling, Kent, believes it could save the NHS thousands of pounds. She recently received homeopathic treatment forr gynaecological problems after the birth of her daughter, Rebecca, in 1992.

Her bladder started to bulge into the wall of her vagina. Her GP recommended an operation and warned that she would almost certainly need a caesar-ean if she had another child.

Faced with the prospect of two operations, Julie went to see a homeopathic therapist. Her initial assessment lasted two hours; the therapist asked for details of her lifestyle and likes and dislikes before prescribing anything.

Within weeks of taking the remedy - a blend of natural substances in very low doses - the bulge had receded. She has had no trouble since.

The private treatment cost her pounds 100.

'When you compare that with the thousands of pounds that surgery would have cost, it was a tremendous saving for the local hospital.'

(Photograph omitted)