Peter Hain: Adopt a more holistic approach to health care

One in five Britons, myself included, now uses complementary health care
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The Independent Online

When our first baby, Sam, was born with eczema, various creams were prescribed. But they didn't work. Nor, when he developed asthma as well, did the prescribed steroid spray. It was only when - in desperation - we turned to homeopathy and radical changes in diet that both ailments went away.

When our first baby, Sam, was born with eczema, various creams were prescribed. But they didn't work. Nor, when he developed asthma as well, did the prescribed steroid spray. It was only when - in desperation - we turned to homeopathy and radical changes in diet that both ailments went away.

All 60 million people in Britain will at some time rely on conventional medicine. But 20 million of us now rely on complementary medicine, whether vitamin or mineral pills, dietary therapy, homeopathy or osteopathy. The question is can we bring them together under the National Health Service?

In years gone by the benefits of complementary medicine were derided, its proponents regarded as weirdoes, swimming against a tide of conventional medical opinion. But today there is an increasing recognition that both sectors can co-exist, with the patient the winner. I am pleased that the Welsh Assembly Government is looking into opportunities to support complementary therapies within the NHS in Wales. Officials have been liaising with the Department of Health and the Prince's Foundation about these issues and at this stage it has agreed to promote a guide for patients on complementary health care developed by the foundation across Wales. Of course, conventional health care provides the spine of the NHS. But complementary treatment is increasingly adding valuable benefits and choices for people. One in five Britons, myself included, now uses complementary health care; nearly half the GP practices in England provide some kind of access to complementary health care; and there are now nearly 50,000 complementary medicine practitioners.

There are two main issues to be faced. First a much more comprehensive, holistic approach to health care, looking not just at symptoms but at causes, not just at curing ailments but at changing lifestyles. Second, it is vital that we as individuals take much more responsibility for our own health.

For instance far too many children are being brought up on a poor diet and overuse of antibiotics. Their diet has far too many additives and too much added sugar and salt. Overuse of antibiotic prescriptions is a concern for all healthcare professionals and may affect our natural immune systems in the long term. As a recent study showed, today's generation of youngsters is likely to die younger, reversing a centuries-old trend of longer lifespan.

An integrated approach to health is not simply an "add on" to conventional treatment and services. As a diagnostic approach, it enables a fuller understanding of priorities for treatment, where a more conventional approach based on the literal interpretation of symptoms may lead to more costly and specialised treatment than is necessary. And in treatment terms, it offers a wide range of alternatives, for example osteopathy and chiropractic, instead of just physiotherapy for backs, or yoga and massage approaches instead of tranquillisers for stress.

The integrated approach is patient-centred, may be more effective and could save precious health service resources. It is estimated that there are 17.5 million people in this country suffering from chronic rather than acute conditions. They might typically be suffering from back and or neck pain, bowel problems, indigestion, stress, anxiety, depression and migraine. And more people are seeking out alternative treatments to such problems.

Research by the University of Sheffield revealed that in 1998, some 19 million visits were made to complementary practitioners in the UK, compared to 14 million visits by patients to A&E departments across the country. Osteopathy and chiropractic are now regulated on the same basis as doctors and nurses. The Government is also proposing similar arrangements for acupuncturists and herbal practitioners. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence on Multiple Sclerosis said last year that complementary therapies such as Tai Chi, reflexology, magnetic therapy and massage may have potential benefit for people with MS; there is good evidence that St John's Wort is helpful for those suffering with mild depression; and in March, the British Medical Journal carried a report which recommended an expansion of NHS acupuncture services for primary care patients with chronic headache, particularly migraine.

Let's be clear about the boundaries. A broken leg requires hospitalisation, full stop. A diseased appendix needs to be removed, full stop. But recovery from appendicitis is likely to be aided by complementary care and a strong immune system. So we need more funding and training to encourage doctors to make use of competent, regulated complementary practitioners for their patients under the NHS. For example I know of GPs who regularly recommend patients to dietary therapists - with spectacular results.

There shouldn't be an "either, or" for conventional and complementary medicine. It is a question of being open-minded about each others' abilities and perspectives. Ultimately this will be driven by the patients. We all want the best of all worlds, combining the benefits of both complementary and conventional NHS approaches to health.

The writer is the Secretary of State for Wales

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