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UK To Regulate And Control ALL Alternative Health Therapies

By Patrick Wintour - Guardian Unlimited

27th Nov 2000

The booming complementary health medicines market is to be brought under full regulation by the government following a damning report to be published next week by a parliamentary committee. The 18-month inquiry by the Lords science select committee has left peers shocked at the haphazard standards and lack of even self-regulation. They have also found that the information produced on alternative medicines is of hugely variable quality and sometimes dangerously misleading. Nearly 20% of the population use alternative or complementary medicines, such as acupuncture, reflexology, homeopathic dentistry, or herbal remedies, spending more than £500m annually in the process. The government is likely to set a timetable for statutory regulation, starting with acupuncture and herbal medicine. The regulation is likely to be brought in on an ad hoc basis using the Health Act passed last year. Only two therapies are at present statutorily regulated - osteopathy and chiropractic - but even they have encountered difficulty bringing all their training bodies into one regulatory authority. Ministers are reluctant to provide alternative remedies on the NHS until there is clearer evidence of their efficacy and proper regulation. There is virtually no serious evidence-based research into their effectiveness, largely because the big pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to fund the research. The companies cannot patent the research findings and therefore make a profit. Advocates of alternative medicines have argued that their individualised and holistic approach makes it difficult to carry out traditional scientific research, but the committee is expected to reject this claim. It will call on the government to make research a priority and suggest the industry has a responsibility to fund research. The committee was told that some therapies had as many as 12 different associations making it possible for a therapist, struck off for incompetence from one voluntary register, to carry on practising by joining another. The only sanction is criminal law. Yvette Cooper, the minister for public health, who has used complementary medicines to combat ME, told the committee that she was disturbed by the lack of proper regulation in the field. Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, told the committee: "It is important, as the complementary professions form themselves into recognisable professional bodies, that they are also brought into a statutory framework." He said the move would ensure only professional and trained practitioners could practise. They could also be formally trained on the limits of alternative medicines, and the need to cooperate with orthodox medicine. The committee will warn that some invasive techniques, such as the use of acupuncture needles, need to be closely overseen. It will also warn that such treatments can be dangerous if they are seen as an alternative to conventional medicine, so leading patients to be deprived of the necessary orthodox medicines. The committee is expected to grade all the various therapies into three categories according to the usefulness and level of regulation. It will propose the regulatory bodies should eventually be funded and include lay members in the same way as the General Medical Council.

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