That would once have been seen as a preserve of the private sector, but now almost one in six health service staff are giving alternative therapy, according to a new study by the NHS Confederation, a body representing hospitals and trusts. This follows a King's Fund report which said that one in four people now say they use alternative therapies - a figure that has doubled in the past 10 years.
The report calculates that there are 750,000 consultations involving complementary medicine within primary care each year and that nearly 40 per cent of GPs offer access to holistic services, mainly for back pain and stress-related problems.
Until now, people have tended to turn to other treatments when dissatisfied with conventional medicine. The NHS generally took the view that many of the treatments' benefits had not been proved. But the NHS Confederation survey found that in Leicestershire, where its survey was carried out, some type of complementary medicine was used by all the NHS professional groups questioned. This ranged from long-established techniques to "new age" ones such as aromatherapy (massage with fragant oils) to reflexology (massage of the feet and hands).
The group most likely to use alternative therapies was midwives - more than a third use complementary medicine, of which one of the most popular therapies was aromatherapy.
Denise Tiran, who is chairwoman of the Complementary Therapies in Midwifery Group, spends half her week lecturing in complementary medicine and midwifery at the University of Greenwich and the rest working as a midwife at St Mary's Hospital, Sidcup. She uses both reflexology and aromatherapy in antenatal treatment. Homeopathy is sometimes used, as are flower remedies.
She thinks every district should have a midwife with a special interest in complementary medicine.
"Women often phone with questions like, 'Should I drink raspberry leaf tea?' and no one will have an answer," she says.
The presence of such people often depends on the whims of the manager of a given trust. Plymouth, she points out, has three. "There is a tremendous interest but the problem they generally come up with is money." But she does not think that the likes of reflexology and acupuncture should be used as an alternative to traditional remedies. "I believe there should be a greater unification between complementary and traditional methods."
Alternative therapies are being used for much more than aches and pains - the survey found that they are also employed to help treat complaints such as addictions and insomnia. Irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, migraine, eczema, arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome - disorders which conventional medicine frequently finds difficult to deal with - are those for which complementary medicine seems to provide most relief.
Additional reporting by Tom FoxReuse content