If you pay for complementary medicine to help prevent disease or improve specific health problems, you are not alone.
One in five Britons now spend a total of £450 million a year on treatments such as acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy and aromatherapy.
But many people don’t realise that alternative treatments are becoming increasingly available on the NHS.
According to The Foundation of Integrated Medicine – an independent body which aims to combine orthodox and alternative therapies – complementary medicine is now available through ten per cent of doctors’ surgeries or alternative hospitals.
And, depending on your doctor, some alternative remedies are also available on prescription.
This shift in thinking is well-documented. A recent survey by the department of health found more than two thirds of doctors believe alternative therapies should be available free on the NHS.
‘The whole field is more sympathetic to complementary medicine compared to five years ago,’ says Dr Mary Helsey of Glastonbury Health Centre.
‘This is because science is proving that some treatments such as osteopathy and homeopathy are effective and practitioners are well regulated.’
However, not all complementary medicine is recommended on the NHS.
Health experts say alternative treatments fall into three main groups. Those therapies that are recommended, those that are accepted and those that are dismissed.
Most popular are acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy, chiropractice and herbal medicine. This is because these therapies are regulated by professional bodies and supported by scientific evidence.
While the NHS accepts that massage, aromatherapy, meditation, reflexology and meditation can benefit patients, these therapies lack proper regulation.
On the other hand, doctors dismiss Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, iridology and crystal therapies on the basis of insufficient scientific evidence.
And, not every general practice offers complementary medicine. Whether your treatment is free depends on how much money your local surgery sets aside for these therapies from its budget. Each health authority will decide whether complementary medicine meets local needs or not.
If your practice is in favour of complementary medicine there are a number of ways you can get alternative treatment on the NHS.
The NHS has part-funded some surgeries to employ alternative therapists. This means patients pay a reduced rate of around £6 per session – compared to the going rate of around £30 for one hour. Other practices work closely with complementary therapists and offer an entirely free service.
Doctors also refer patients to one of five homeopathic hospitals in the country – which offer a wide variety of treatments including acupuncture, relaxtion therapy and osteopathy.
In some cases, doctors may advise patients to see a private alternative therapist which will be partly funded by the NHS.
It is also possible to get prescriptions – currently around £6.10 – for homeopathic, nutritional medicine or herbal remedies if a doctor feels this will help the patient.
Even if complementary medicine is not offered at your local surgery, it’s likely that more funding will become available in the future. The Department of Health even has plans to invest £18 million in the Royal London Homeopathic hospital.
Health experts are confident that the future is looking hopeful for complementary medicine.
‘Emerging evidence is proving that some alternative therapies are effective in restoring people back to health. It looks like complementary medicine is finally getting the big vote of confidence,’ said Dr Peter Fisher, clinical director at the Royal London Homoeopathic hospital.
The Department of Health agrees complementary medicine has a part to play in the NHS.
‘If scientific research proves to be effective, there will be more funding available for complementary medicine,’ said a spokesperson.