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Tuesday, 24 August, 1999, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
The alternative set
herbs
More people are turning to unconventional medicines
A combination of reduced faith in conventional treatments and the growth in availability of alternative remedies has led to the rise in people turning to alternative medicine.

Alternative Health
However, very few abandon conventional medicines but use the two in combination - leading to the use of the term complementary medicine.

In many cases, the disillusion in established modern western medicine has been due to its impotence in the face of diseases such as AIDs and cancer.

People with such conditions turn to alternatives partly out of desperation, but also because of the strength of anecdotal evidence that the therapies are effective.

Limitations of the conventional

Dr Jonathan Monckton, director of the UK Research Council for Complementary Medicine, says the increased use represents a sea change in attitudes towards the medical establishment.

"What it is not is a rejection of conventional medicine," he told BBC News Online. "It's more inspired by fact that the limitations of conventional medicine are becoming more apparent.

"Years ago conventional medicine was seen to be infallible, but the new age of communication has shown that certain chronic conditions may best be served by the more palliative effects of complementary therapies."

Studies have shown that about 80% of those who use alternative therapies stick to their conventional treatments and are happy with them, he said.

Empowerment

One theory is that the increasing use was also a sign of social change, he said.

"People aren't content to be told what to do, they prefer to be more responsible for their own health and their own well-being.

"It's about autonomy and empowering the individual and the paternalistic form of medicine of 20 to 30 years ago has now given way to this partnership in health care."

The Internet has had a huge impact in this respect, with research published last February suggesting that 60% of Web-users look for health information - mainly in relation to mental health issues, allergies and cancer.

Hospital services

For the newly-empowered public, there is now freer access to alternative medicine through the NHS, although most is still available only privately.

There are two big homeopathic hospitals in the UK - in London and Glasgow - as well as three smaller units around the country.

Added to this is GPs' greater willingness to refer patients to alternative practitioners, especially after the introduction of the GP fundholding.

Under that scheme, individual practices set their own budgets and could choose which additional services to offer their patients - some saw it as an opportunity to save money on drug budgets.

All change in the NHS

However, the current Labour government has abolished the scheme, and replaced it with primary care groups, which will involve up to 50 GPs setting budgets across an area.

Whether alternative medicine on the NHS continues to prosper in this set up remains to be seen.

Another concern is that with the current government's emphasis on accountability in the health service, there will be room for therapies that to many are unproven and which are practised in many cases by unregulated individuals.

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See also:

26 Aug 99 | Health
Glasgow's NHS alternative
26 Jul 99 | Aids
Aids centre takes new approach
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Patients go alternative
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