Homoeopathy - treatments based on a minute dose of a substance that would normally produce the symptoms in question - is increasingly popular, and increasingly profitable.
Boots the Chemists, the UK's biggest chain of pharmacies with 1,134 branches and a turnover last year of pounds 2.8bn, says sales of homoeopathic remedies have doubled in the past five years. So rapid has the growth of interest been that Boots launched its own range at the end of March.
Boots is actually reverting to form. Jesse Boot, a herbalist, founded the company to dispense herbal medicines in 1877.
'You could say we are now re- discovering our roots, ' said Sharon Buckle, a spokeswoman. 'We launched our own brand of herbal medicines in August last year, and our own homoeopathic range at the end of March.'
Boots prefers the term 'complementary', rather than 'alternative' medicine, since it says homoeopathic treatments should be used alongside conventional ones. Education is the key.
'We want people to be able to buy these products in an informed environment, so we supply leaflets and we have trained pharmacists, working closely with the Faculty of Homoeopathy. About 800 of our stores now have a specially trained pharmacist,' Ms Buckle said.
Boots' supplier is Weleda, which began supplying homoeopathic treatments in 1925.
'We have noticed a big increase, from 10 per cent growth some years ago to almost 25 per cent more recently,' said Roger Barsby, marketing manager.
The contract to supply Boots is still in its early stages, but he estimates that it will be worth around pounds 500,000, out of a turnover of pounds 3m this year.
Weleda's raw materials are grown organically, mostly in the UK. It supplies only pure, single substances to Boots, although there are some manufacturers that supply pharmacies with mixtures, such as remedies for colds.
Boots says its range has proved enormously popular, and Ms Buckle believes the household name has brought extra credibility to homoeopathic treatments.
There is, in any case, a general and growing acceptance of homoeopathy.
'People interested in homoeopathy are all coming out of the closet now. A few years ago, you wouldn't have dreamt of mentioning it at a party. Now, if you do, everyone is interested and quite well informed,' said Enid Segall, secretary-general of the British Homoeopathic Association.
The patients' charter, which makes it clear that people have a right to alternative treatments under the NHS, has also helped.
There is a southern bias to spending patterns on homoeopathic medicines. Boots' surveys show that purchasers tend to be over 30 and consider themselves well informed. Around 80 per cent expressed some interest in complementary medicines.
Even so the UK lags behind its Continental neighbours. In the UK about pounds 40m a year is spent on complementary medicines (which cover herbal and other treatments as well as homoeopathic), compared with about pounds 1bn for the rest of western Europe. In Germany and France, in particular, homoeopathic prescriptions are far more common.
The more established market in Continental Europe also poses a threat: some UK practitioners already buy supplies from abroad, and with the Single Market now in operation, many Continental manufacturers are eyeing this country with interest.
At the moment, individual homoeopathic practitioners and hospitals tend to be supplied by specialist UK pharmacies. The best known are Ainsworths, which has the royal warrant, and Helios in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
But since reorganisation in the NHS, with many hospitals becoming self-governing trusts, some hospitals that already made their own preparations have begun to sell them by mail order.
The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in Great Ormond Street, London, is the oldest homoeopathic centre in the country, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
It became a trust in the third wave of NHS conversions in April last year.
'We get all our ingredients from homoeopathic manufacturers in the UK, but we do have a retail licence to supply products, so we supply people referred by GPs to the hospital,' said Anne Eden, chief executive.
Nelsons, established in 1860, is the oldest homoeopathic pharmacy in the world, with the exception of one in America. It too has experienced a surge in sales.
'We are the major supplier to all areas of the healthcare environment, and in the past five years we have seen sales of homoeopathic products more than double. And we expect that growth to continue,' said Tom Russell, marketing manager.
The bulk of Nelsons' business is through the pharmacy trade, although mail order is also a significant part of the business, 'because it does make it more accessible for some people'. The company supplies Boots, too, which is its biggest customer. 'The total market for homoeopathic remedies is about pounds 17m and we have a 70 per cent share of that market.'
While large suppliers such as Weleda and Nelsons are clearly thriving, small individual practitioners are not necessarily enjoying a share of the boom. They often cannot afford to promote their services and are frequently overlooked by GPs.
David Munnings, a lay practitioner based in Southampton, says that in his first year in 1979 his turnover was pounds 750.
For the first five years, he made no profit at all, and still makes very little. His turnover is low enough to keep him below the VAT threshold. For a first consultation he charges pounds 26, which may sound high, but a first visit can take up to one and a half hours, and this compares with about pounds 30 for an initial, 20-minute session with a chiropractor.
There are still significant business hurdles to be cleared, however. Many people are still reluctant to pay for any kind of private treatment, and some health insurance companies do not reimburse people for homoeopathic treatment unless they have been referred by a doctor. But once that bridge is crossed, the market for homoeopathic remedies seems set to escalate.
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