Leading article: A flawed diagnosis

On the face of it, the demand by a group of Britain's leading doctors that the NHS should stop using complementary therapies seems sensible enough. At a time when health service deficits are forcing trusts to sack nurses and ration life-saving drugs it seems madness to spend money on therapies whose efficacy is, to say the least, controversial. Even the enthusiasts of homeopathy concede that no one knows why it works - if it does.

It does not help that one of the most prominent advocates of alternative medicine, the Prince of Wales - who is behind two of the initiatives doctors single out for criticism - is easily mocked as the man who talks to his houseplants. Yet there is something disquieting about the absolutist nature of the attack from members of a closed shop on anything not rooted in their biochemical model of medicine.

Why waste money, they ask, on treatments that make people better, or feel better, when the recovery may be produced by a placebo effect - even if that placebo is non-toxic and cheap, as homeopathy is? They give their own answer: because it makes people better, or feel better.

Wellbeing is as laudable a goal as physical health, even in the purely utilitarian calculus to which these eminent doctors subscribe. And alternative medicine - whose practitioners are often able to devote far more time to individual patients than do harassed GPs - can be particularly important in offering psychological and spiritual support to those suffering with critical illness.

It is also important to keep the issue in proportion. Huge amounts of public cash are not spent on this. The NHS has a £3m budget for research into alternative therapies. It is spending, for example, just £324,000 on three research projects examining the role of complementary therapies in the care of patients with cancer. Moreover, under the "alternative" umbrella is a wide range of therapies, some wholly irrational and weak and others, as the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee pointed out, with a strong track record and a good research base.

Twenty years ago acupuncture was dismissed, largely because the theoretical base outlined by its practitioners made no scientific sense. Yet acupuncture, we now know, does work - though for reasons other than those set out by those who practised it. Had scientific fundamentalism held sway 20 years ago we wouldn't have acupuncture available on the NHS today.

It is not simply that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in a scientific philosophy. It is that open-mindedness is a scientific virtue too.