This site is intended for health professionals only

Patients are the real losers in the complementary medicine debate

One of the most important questions about complementary medicine - does it generate more harm than good - remains unanswered because two alternative and antagonistic attitudes are influencing the evidence, said an expert yesterday.

In an editorial in BMJ Clinical Evidence, Professor Edzard Ernst says that patients are being continuously and seriously misled by both sides of the debate on complementary medicine.

The sceptics often ignore the evidence for complementary medicine, he says. Despite thousands of clinical trials and hundreds of systematic reviews, mainstream journals rarely publish positive findings, giving the impression that little serious research is being done in this field, or that the findings show complementary medicine to be useless or even dangerous.

In contrast, he argues, the proponents claim that "scientific evidence cannot be applied to complementary medicine" when the data fail to show what they had hoped for.

But the real loser in these ongoing disputes is the patient, warns Ernst.

He points out that complementary medicine has become important not because of the eagerness of doctors, the interests of scientists or the attention of politicians, but because of the "almost insatiable hunger of patients."

It is patients who are bearing the burden of the £1.6bn spent in Britain each year on complementary medicine - these therapies are rarely available on the National Health Service - but with little evidence available to them about what really works.

So what can be done? Reliable information intended specifically for lay people must be produced as a matter of urgency, he concludes.

BMJ Clinical Evidence

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"The answer is it can do both so the best we can do is keep talking about all of the issues and help expose that what is wrong. The public especially need to ask more questions. Our society is moving away from the doctor curing us, to us taking on more responsibility for ourselves. This is the right way forward. Practitioners are facilitators to help people be more informed and therefore empowered. Complementary and orthodox care should work together to help the healing process" - Jill Daniels