One of the most important developments in health care in recent years has been the remarkable growth of alternative - or complementary - medicine in Ireland, and in all westernised countries. Even most small towns in Ireland, where 20 years ago the concept of alternative medicine was unheard of, now have several alternative medical practitioners, many of whom are almost as busy as the local GP. In Britain, there are now more alternative medical practitioners than GPs, a remarkable development considering that, while the British public do not have to pay to visit their GP, they do have to pay to visit alternative medical practitioners. Clearly, alternative medicine is providing a valuable service.
The majority of medical doctors are quite dismissive of alternative medicine, and many doctors are positively hostile towards it. Doctors say publicly that this is because there is no scientific proof that alternative medicine actually works. I believe this is a smokescreen; the real reasons doctors are so against alternative medicine are much, much deeper. Doctors are scared of alternative medicine: they feel deeply threatened by it. Doctors have spent years of their lives studying and working within the modern medical health system. They feel entitled to reap the financial and other rewards which go with being a medical doctor.
I believe it galls doctors to think that, after all their years of study, sacrifice and hard work, their patients are flocking to alternative practitioners whose beliefs about health are very different from those of the medical profession. One doctor expressed his frustration in a medical journal: "Western medicine has advanced to undreamed of heights, yet what is very dubious, captures the imagination of the people". I would question the accuracy of both the "undreamed of heights" and the "very dubious" claims which this doctor makes.
Ironically, in many ways doctors have only themselves to blame for the astonishing growth in alternative medicine. It is the medical profession's own dismissive attitude to alternative medicine; their almost total reliance on drugs as the only valid form of therapy; the major inadequacies of the medical system; and the medical profession's failure to look at the whole person, which have driven people to look elsewhere to have their health needs met.
A small minority of doctors is open to countenancing alternative treatments. While some of this group of doctors are genuinely open to considering alternatives, many doctors have become more tolerant of alternative medicine because they feel they have no choice but to adapt to the views of their patients. But the majority of doctors are very dismissive of alternative medicine. They may not be courageous enough to say this in public, but this view is expressed again and again in medical journals. The medical profession repeatedly says that it must protect the public from these alternative medical charlatans, these rogues whose only desire is to con the public out of their hard-earned money. These doctors seem to forget that people can make up their own minds, that most people quickly sense if they are being duped.
Doctors say that alternative medicine remains scientifically unproven, and therefore cannot be trusted. What these doctors don't say is that many of the everyday medical practices and treatments are also scientifically unproven, but that doesn't stop doctors from prescribing them.
THE medical profession repeatedly raises doubts about the safety of alternative medicine. Doctors preach that these treatments are dubious, and should not be encouraged. In 1995, a GP was quoted in a medical journal as saying that, with regard to alternative forms of medicine, it must first be established that they do no harm, and then whether or not they do any good. Struck by this classic example of double standards, I wrote to that journal. I asked: "What right have doctors to demand of alternative medicine standards which doctors do not demand of themselves?"
Conventional medicine does not have an impressive safety record. For instance:
Approximately 25 per cent of hospital admissions are for iatrogenic reasons, i.e: caused by medical treatments or procedures.
Death from medication errors have more than doubled between 1983 and 1993 in the US.
Recent studies showed that in the US alone more than 150,000 people die every year at least partly as a result of medical treatment procedures.
Every drug doctors prescribe has a long list of potential side-effects, many of which are not discussed with the patients for whom they are prescribed.
Rather than vociferously raise doubts about the safety of alternative medicine, the medical profession would do well to improve the safety of its own everyday medical practice. My own impression is that, overall, the safety record of alternative medicine is far superior to that of modern medicine.
Certainly, alternative medicine still has some work to do. The lack of an overall registration and supervisory body - such as the Medical Council, the body which oversees medical doctors - needs to be addressed. But overall I feel that alternative medicine does have great potential and should be taken much more seriously by the medical profession.
A recent study of GMS patients (i.e. patients with medical cards) revealed that one-third of these patients had used alternative medicine, and 40 per cent found alternative medicine more effective than conventional medicine. Some 87 per cent - almost nine out of 10 - reported a positive result from their alternative medical treatment. Isn't it about time the medical profession began to listen to the views of their patients?
In a recent study of 200 patients in GP surgeries in Dublin, the authors concluded that the medical profession has paid surprisingly little attention to the health practices of the public and that the reluctance of the medical profession to take note of alternative medicine represents a "significant failure" on the part of the medical profession to meet the health needs of the population.
If the medical profession really had the welfare of the patient as its prime driving force, then modern medicine would join forces with alternative medicine and psychology. They would invite these and other groups - who might have something to offer towards the betterment of health care - around the table. They would put together a holistic health system, a whole-person approach to health care based on the patient's needs, not on the needs of the medical profession (nor, indeed, the priorities of the pharmaceutical industry).
But this is not happening. The medical profession is in effect saying to alternative medicine: "You're on your own. You prove to us that you have something to contribute". When alternative medicine does come up with scientific research - as has occurred in homeopathy, osteopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, among other fields - this research is quickly dismissed by the medical profession.
Unlike conventional modern medicine, which has enormous funding for research available to it from drug companies, alternative medicine has no such funds available for research. Why don't doctors, in the interests of their patients, help to ensure that appropriate funding for research into alternative medicine is made available, instead of dismissing the expansion of alternative medicine at every possible opportunity?
The public are ignoring the protestations of the medical profession. Perhaps people feel that doctors doth protest too much. Perhaps what really galls doctors is that the public are not listening to their warnings about alternative medicine.
The medical profession's refusal to take either alternative medicine or psychology seriously suggests to me that the welfare of the patient is not the profession's prime motivation. Self-interest, and the vested interests of both the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry, are preventing the development of a truly holistic health-care system, for which the public have been crying out for years.
Dr Terry Lynch is a GP who practises in Dooradoyle, Co Limerick as a holistic medical doctor.