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Alternative Medicine

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2006

Provision of complementary and alternative therapies on the NHS is a matter for primary care trusts and local NHS service providers. The Government believe that decisions on individual clinical interventions, whether conventional, complementary or alternative, are for local determination.

I hear the Minister and sympathise with his philosophical position. However, therapies such as acupuncture and Alexander technique are proven to be effective and cost-effective, but access on the NHS is difficult, with hurdles all over the place. What steps will he take to ensure that such therapies, which are proven to work, are available on the NHS to people who want to use them? Will he ensure that comparisons between conventional medicine and alternative therapies are made on the basis of sound science rather than of prejudice?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have provided more information about the available complementary therapies. Recent figures show that around 50 per cent. of GPs are making such therapies available to patients and evidence shows that people are getting access to those services. Of course, they should always be based on the evidence available and a balance must be struck. However, locally, the matter is for clinical decision and it would be wrong to mandate such treatment or to rule it out from the top down. It is for doctors to decide.

The Minister is absolutely correct in saying that, when NHS budgets are under such severe pressure, patients, clinicians and taxpayers are best served only by treatments whose efficacy can be shown to be based on solid evidence. Is it not the case that too many homeopathic and other treatments are not subject to the rigorous testing that is routine for pharmaceutical products? As a result, they can produce known adverse effects, or show no demonstrable or discernable benefits whatever. Is not that a bit of a con?

I agree that such treatments or therapies should be prescribed or made available to patients on the advice of a clinician, and that that judgment should be made in the best interest of the patient. When there is doubt about the evidence base for a treatment, people should err on the side of caution.

There is a great deal of controversy in the health service about the benefits or otherwise of alternative therapies, but, given that some people feel strongly that they have substantial benefits, should not the Government give primary care trusts some form of guidance on this issue? Perhaps it could take the form of a code of best practice to advise on how best to provide treatments to which many people attach the greatest possible importance.

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. There are obviously strong views at either end of this argument. Some people are passionately in favour of the availability of complementary medicines, but some senior clinicians recently wrote in the newspapers that they were very much opposed to them. It seems to me that the right ground in this case is the middle ground—

The middle ground, not the third way. We should encourage people to use local clinical discretion. Although we have made more information on this subject available, not least through the Foundation for Integrated Health, we need local decision making.