Alternative therapies on NHS ‘should end’

The NHS should stop promoting complementary medicines and instead use the money for treatments based on “solid evidence”, a group of leading doctors said today.

Thirteen scientists, who include some of Britain’s leading medics, have written to all NHS trusts in England calling for them to review their use of alternative medicines.

Primary care trusts (PCT) take their own decisions as to whether to offer complementary medicine on the NHS, but the practice is increasingly being promoted in government-funded leaflets and information packs.

There are currently five NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK, in Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Tunbridge Wells, while most hospital clinics offer some form of complementary therapy, such as acupuncture and chiropractics.

But in their letter, seen by The Times, the doctors today say homeopathy is an “implausible treatment for which over a dozen systematic reviews have failed to produce convincing evidence of effectiveness”.

They warn that treatments being promoted on the NHS as part of alternative medicine “include some which have not been tested as pharmaceutical products, but which are known to cause side effects, and others that have no demonstrable benefits”.

The letter continues: “While medical practice must remain open to new discoveries for which there is convincing evidence, including any branded as ‘alternative’, it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.

“At a time when the NHS is under intense pressure, patients, the public and the NHS are best served by using the available funds for treatments that are based on solid evidence.”

The signatories, who include James Black, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1988, and Keith Peters, president of the Royal Academy of Medical Science, say they are “sensitive” to the needs of patients for complementary care to enhance their well-being.

But they insist that this, and the need for emotional support when dealing with a critical illness, “can be supported through services already available within the NHS without resorting to false claims”.

However, the clinical director of the Royal London homeopathic hospital disputed the letter’s claims, and said there was evidence to show many complementary therapies did work.

Peter Fisher dismissed the critics for believing that “any therapy that cannot trace its origins to what is called the biomedical model should be excluded from the NHS”.

Meanwhile a spokeswoman for the Department for Health said it was up to individual clinicians and health trusts to decide, but insisted the government was putting nearly £3 million into research into complementary medicine.

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

“Patient guides, such as that produced by the Foundation of Integrated Health, are an important way of making sure this information is easily accessible to patients and ultimately help them to make the right treatment choices.”