Tuesday, August 11, 1998 Published at 19:00 GMT 20:00 UK
Patients go alternative
Alternative medicine is growing in popularity
Specialists in alternative medicine outnumber GPs in the UK, according to figures released by the British Medical Association.
The BMA figures show there are 36,600 GPs in the UK while the first ever survey for the government of complementary medicine says there are around 40,000 practitioners.
Many GPs are sceptical about some forms of alternative therapy.
Simon Mills, director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine at the University of Essex, says he understands their scepticism.
The centre carried out the survey for the Department of Health. "Some would frighten the horses. Some frightened us," he said.
"Some are pretty fringey. They usually believe in what they are doing, although some are chancers, but the number is small.
"We were moderately reassured that most came up to standard considering there is not one ounce of regulation in this field."
He said it would be impossible to get a sufficiently exhaustive set of standards to cover the whole field of complementary medicine, but the centre is trying to encourage the already existent spirit of self-regulation.
It suggests they should be more external and peer reviews of practitioners.
"It is in their own interests to want to be seen as respectable," he said.
Public awareness of the need for standards is also important in pushing them up.
The centre is involved in proposals to set up a central phoneline which the public can ring to find out if practitioners come up to agreed standards.
The centre compiled its figures on practitioners by identifying the professional associations involved in the field and making a conservative estimate of the number who are not members of associations.
Many who belonged to associations had on block insurance policies and displinary measures to bring members up to standard.
The figures will add to pressure on doctors to provide information to patients on complementary medicine. The exercise was part of the Prince of Wales' "integrated health care" initiative.
Simon Mills estimates that up to 20% of the UK population has used complementary medicine.
"A large number of GPs' patients take complementary medicine on their own behalf.
"If doctors do not know about it they may not be acting in a professionally responsible way if they prescribe drugs which may interact with other treatments. We are encouraging them to get up to speed."