Leading Article: A dose of alternative medicine for doctors

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The Independent Online
SEVEN years after damning alternative medicine, the British Medical Association, the doctors' trade union, has finally caught up with the public and recognised the importance of complementary remedies. Its reversal is a tribute to the power of patients, who in their thousands are seeking new answers to stubborn, often chronic ailments. At last the association has accepted that doctors do not enjoy the monopoly on cures to ill-health.

The BMA's tone has changed remarkably as more and more people attend osteopaths, chiropractors and herbalists. In 1986, the association dismissed with Olympian disdain all but the placebo effect of homoeopathic medicine. Yesterday, in its landmark report, it recommended that doctors attend courses on the most popular and beneficial therapies. These are popular because people find that they work, for example, in dealing with eczema, migraine, back pain and other complaints that seem to defy conventional medicine. It was foolish to ignore them for so long.

The report inevitably will attract cynical comment from those who see the BMA as jumping on the bandwagon. However, the association's endorsement of complementary medicine is welcome, even if belated. The BMA's opinion carries weight with the general public.

Equally important is the call for statutory regulation of certain therapies, such as acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic and homoeopathy. These should have public registers, codes of practice, effective disciplinary procedures, sanctions and a complaints mechanism. Charlatans should not be allowed to practice. Parliament is in the final stages of legislating to regulate osteopathy and chiropractors are seeking similar regulation. The Government should set up machinery to control other therapies, which may do both harm as well as good.

Psychotherapy, though not strictly a complementary therapy, is another treatment that patients are seeking out on their own, often without medical advice. It requires similar regulation. The first national register of psychotherapists was opened last month and requires that applicants meet minimum standards. However, it is still true that anyone can call themselves a psychotherapist. This leaves vulnerable people open to potential abuses. Some of these have been well documented. The mind is as precious as the body and should equally be protected from inadequately trained therapists.

As the association's report rightly points out, regulation is needed to ensure that doctors feel confident about referring patients to practitioners of alternative medicine. Seminars and training courses also will help. However, there remains the question of which therapies actually work. It is not enough to guarantee that patients will come to no harm. The National Health Service - if it is paying for treatments - and private individuals need dispassionate advice on the efficacy of different therapies, be they of the conventional or the alternative variety. The dissemination of information about effectiveness remains remarkably sketchy. Yet this, more than any other criteria, should surely decide where patients are treated and how NHS money is spent.