This Report gives general material and opinions for information only and is not to be considered an alternative to professional medical advice. Readers should consult their family doctors or other qualified medical advisers on any matter relating to their health and wellbeing.
See bottom of page for A-Z listing of specialities
There are a number of different reasons why people consult alternative practitioners. But by far the commonest reason is a dissatisfaction with what orthodox medicine has to offer. Patients are frightened by the high incidence of side effects known to be associated with the use of modern drugs and surgical techniques; they are annoyed by the lack of time and courtesy offered to them by clinicians of all kinds; and they are attracted by the promises of a sympathetic manner and of risk-free therapies that are associated with alternative practitioners.
There is little doubt in my mind that the dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine is well-founded. There is now ample evidence available to show that medical school trained practitioners are often more interested in their research programmes than in the welfare of their patients, and more interested in the science of medicine than the art of healing.
In recent years numerous books and research articles have been published which have shown that too often doctors do more harm than good and that the affection shown by doctors for high-technology medicine is often misplaced. Two of my earliest books, The Medicine Men and Paper Doctors, described some of the specific problems associated with twentieth-century medicine in close detail. More recently my book Betrayal of Trust (published by the European Medical Journal) provided evidence showing that doctors now do more harm than good!
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The boom years of alternative medicine have seen the development of a vast number of specialities. Some are ancient, others are relatively modern; some are symptomatic, others are designed to improve the overall health of the individual; some are based on mental powers, others are purely physical; some are clearly and unarguably interventionist, while others encourage the individual to use his own powers. Some techniques are logical and physical, while others are irrational and illogical.
There has been an explosion in the number of practitioners offering alternative medicine services. Walk through any decent sized town and you’ll find rows of brass plates advertising the services of hypnotherapists, acupuncturists, herbalists and osteopaths. Let your fingers walk idly through the telephone directory and you’ll find advertisements for homoeopaths, chiropractors and a hundred and one other impressive-sounding specialities.
For the individual patient wanting to take advantage of the services offered by today’s alternative practitioners there is one enormous problem: how to differentiate between the well-qualified practitioner and the out-and-out quack.
Surprising though it may seem, there are few laws about just who can or cannot practise alternative medicine. And there are no laws to prevent individuals who are after a quick buck from setting themselves up as training establishments or colleges and offering diplomas by post to students prepared to part with the appropriate fee.
It is possible for someone with absolutely no training to leave a factory or office job on Friday evening and set up shop as analternative medicine practitioner on Monday morning! In the afternoon the same practitioner can open his or her own training school!
Many alternative medicine practitioners offer an excellent and valuable service. I am an enthusiastic supporter of many types of alternative medicine. But we must not ignore the fact that there are practitioners offering their services today who couldn’t pass a basic biology examination. There are practitioners in all alternative medical specialities who know virtually nothing about anatomy or physiology. There are thousands of practitioners around who are a positive menace and a danger to the health of their patients.
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Some of those who practise alternative medicine claim that their treatments are entirely safe. This is not true. There are a number of very real dangers associated with all types of alternative medicine.
First, there are the intrinsic dangers associated with alternative therapies even when they are practised competently. There have, for example, been reports of several patients whose spinal cords have been damaged by osteopathic manipulation. Other reports have shown that there are real hazards with just about all alternative practices.
Secondly, there is the very real risk that because of a poor training an alternative practitioner will make an incorrect diagnosis and treat a patient improperly. For example, in one well-documented case a 22-year-old woman died of tuberculosis after being treated with Epsom salts, herbs and a fruit diet by an alternative medicine practitioner who thought she was constipated.
Thirdly, there is the equally real risk that a treatment offered by an alternative practitioner will interact dangerously with a treatment offered simultaneously by an orthodox practitioner. Prescribed drugs and herbal products are, for example, particularly likely to produce a dangerous response. Patients should always tell their doctors when seeing alternative practitioners (and vice versa).
Fourthly, there is the problem that alternative practitioners are not usually available at night or at weekends. This means that in an emergency the patient of such a practitioner may be left to fend for him or herself.
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In the past those who have written about alternative medicine have fallen into two clearly defined categories. On the one hand there have been those who have dismissed all alternative remedies as irrational and irrelevant. On the other hand there have been those who have praised and supported all aspects of alternative medicine without reservation or criticism. Some doctors have claimed that all alternative practitioners are ignorant and useless. Some alternative therapists claim that they have all the answers to all medical problems.
I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Some forms of alternative medicine are dangerous and useless, other alternative solutions are relatively safe and effective. Some alternative practitioners are rogues, anxious only to make money out of their patients; others are honest, honourable and responsible. Some disorders are best treated by alternative practitioners while others need the attention of orthodox medical practitioners. Patients should, I believe, be encouraged to use a mixture of all the available regimes, both orthodox and complementary. The human body responds to many different methods of treatment and in future I would like to see all practitioners aware of this and prepared to combine their energies and skills for the benefit of their patients.
In order to prepare an honest, unbiased appraisal of all popular forms of alternative medicine I have spoken and written to thousands of patients and practitioners. And I have read thousands of books and articles dealing with specific and general aspects of alternative medicine. Inevitably, in order to keep this book to a manageable length I have had to exclude many of the more esoteric therapies and most of the purely psychological therapies (an American Commission on Mental Health listed no fewer than 140 different forms of psychotherapy).
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I have formulated a few basic guidelines of my own for readers who want to take advantage of the skills offered by alternative therapists.
First, remember that orthodox medical practitioners are undoubtedly the best equipped to deal with acute conditions. In an emergency of any kind I suggest that patients call their own general practitioners or visit their nearest hospital. Where there is doubt about a diagnosis then a visit to an orthodox medical professional is essential. Alternative therapists are sometimes poor at making diagnoses and can, on occasions, make very serious errors.
Alternative therapists are often very good at dealing with specific problems. (For example, osteopaths are good at dealing with bad backs; acupuncturists are good at dealing with persistent pain.) The information available in the A to Z section of this book will help you decide what conditions are best treated by which specialists.
By and large, alternative practitioners are particularly good at dealing with chronic or persistent medical problems. There are, for example, practitioners who are good at helping with the following problems:
I believe that the best way to choose a good, local practitioner is by word of mouth. Ask your friends and relatives if they know of a good acupuncturist or hypnotherapist. And don’t be afraid to ask your family doctor or general practitioner for advice. Recent research has shown that the majority of doctors do not disapprove of their patients seeking help from alternative therapists – indeed, they often welcome it. If you are thinking of trying any form of alternative medicine my advice is that you check with your doctor first. Your own family doctor will probably know which local alternative therapists are reliable and honest and which are incompetent and unscrupulous.