23 mai 2006

Doctors attack 'bogus' therapies

Some of Britain's leading doctors have urged NHS trusts to stop using complementary therapies and to pay only for medicine "based on solid evidence".

In a letter, reproduced in the Times, they raised concern the NHS is backing "unproven or disproved treatments", like homeopathy and acupuncture.

One doctor said the NHS was funding "bogus" therapies when patients struggled to get drugs like Herceptin.

Prince Charles is to make a speech in Geneva backing complementary therapies.

He will put forward the case for alternative medicine in the fight against serious disease, in a speech to the World Health Assembly.

'Implausible treatment'

The letter, on behalf of 13 people and sent to 476 acute and primary care trusts, is being seen as a direct challenge to the prince's campaign.

Organised by Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, the letter said he and fellow doctors believed alternative medicine was being promoted despite a lack of evidence and "at a time when the NHS is under intense pressure".

It criticised two initiatives - a government-funded guide on homeopathy for patients, and the Smallwood report, commissioned by Prince Charles, which suggested greater access to complementary therapies in the NHS might lead to widespread benefits.

The letter described homeopathy as an "implausible treatment for which over a dozen systematic reviews have failed to produce convincing evidence of effectiveness".

The doctors say while "medical practice must remain open to new discoveries", it would "be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle".

The letter continues: "The public and the NHS are best served by using the available funds for treatments that are based on solid evidence."

Signatories on the letter include Nobel Prize-winner Sir James Black and Sir Keith Peters, president of the Academy of Medical Science.

But 93-year-old Jane Gilchrist, who uses homeopathic therapies, said she had had "great benefit" from it.

"It has been in the NHS since 1948. It's the best kept secret in Britain," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

She said it was difficult to collect data because it was hard to prove the effectiveness of a therapy "based on people, not on symptoms".

'Needs evidence'

One signatory to the letter, consultant clinical scientist Leslie Rose, said its purpose was to instil equal vigour in gathering evidence for every treatment prescribed to NHS patients.

"The NHS should not be spending money where the evidence base is much weaker than it is for conventional treatments," he told BBC Breakfast.

He said a business plan for the refurbishment of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital - which cost £20m to set up - did not put any emphasis on evidence.

Complementary therapies also include reflexology, aromatherapy and a range of massage techniques such as reiki and shiatsu.

Prince Charles first advocated the use of complementary medicines more than 20 years ago.

He has since established the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH), which encourages the development of complementary medicines and integrated healthcare.

On Monday the prince had a lesson in crystal therapy while visiting a hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, to see how complementary therapies are helping older people with Alzheimer's and other mental illnesses.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health (DoH) said it was up to clinicians and trusts to decide on the best treatment for a patient.

"We know it is important that as more people turn to these therapies a solid evidence base is developed," she said.

"Patients rightly expect to have clear information about the range of treatments that are available to them, including complementary therapies."

The department said it did not have figures on the amount spend by the NHS on complementary medicines because decisions were taken locally.

About half of GPs are thought to refer patients to alternative therapists.

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