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Doctors recognise role for alternative medicine: About-turn by BMA on complementary therapies it once dismissed

THE BRITISH Medical Association yesterday paved the way for a closer working relationship between orthodox medicine and complementary therapies such as acupuncture and herbal treatments.

In a landmark report which acknowledges formally that complementary medicine has an important role, the association accepts the need for better information for doctors. A 1986 BMA report dismissed the interest in complementary medicine as 'a passing fashion'. Now the association is recommending that doctors attend courses on the most popular and beneficial therapies.

Professor Tom Meade, director of the Medical Research Council Epidemiology and Medical Care Unit and a member of the BMA working party, said there had been an 'explosion of interest' in the past seven years from doctors and patients.

According to one survey, nearly three-quarters of GPs have referred a patient to a therapist at some time. Another study of trainee GPs showed that more than 80 per cent wanted to train in one or more of the alternative therapies. It is not known how many doctors already practise some of the techniques, but estimates range from 2 to 15 per cent.

The report calls for statutory regulation for the five major therapies - osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, homoeopathy, and herbal medicine - and voluntary regulation for the others such as reflexology and aromatherapy. Osteopathy, which was the first complementary therapy to seek regulation and the establishment of a body similar to the General Medical Council to oversee practitioners, is now in the final stages of legislation. Chiropractors are also seeking regulation.

Dr Fleur Fisher, the BMA's project director and head of the association's ethical, scientific and information division, said that doctors were 'ethically bound' only to refer patients to those practitioners in whom they had confidence. This was increasingly difficult because anyone could set up as a practitioner. 'Regulation would give guidance to doctors and patients and give practitioners a recognised status,' she said. A more research-based approach was needed to place therapies on a firmer scientifc footing.

The report says it is 'imperative that practitioners should be able to prove that they have attained recognised levels of competence in that field so that the doctor will have confidence in making arrangements with a therapist for the care of the patient'.

The BMA says doctors or patients seeking the help of a therapist should ask: is the therapist registered with a professional body; does it have a public register, a code of practice, disciplinary procedures and sanctions and a complaints mechanism? Therapists should also be able to give full details of training and qualifications, how long they have been practising and whether or not they have professional indemnity insurance.

The report was welcomed by the British Chiropractic Association, the Council for Acupuncture, the Osteopathic Information Service and other complementary medicine organisations which have reached similar conclusions in their own earlier reports.

Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice; Oxford University Press; pounds 7.99.