GP practices increasing access to complementary therapies

Some GP practices are now offering complementary therapies and reporting high success rates, happier patients and greater cost-effectiveness for the NHS

The idea that the National Health Service could offer access to complementary therapies alongside conventional medicine seems a long way off in these austere times, but a handful of GP surgeries have adopted this approach, believing that complementary therapies offer real choice to patients, and can prove not only clinically effective, but cost-effective too.

The 14,000 patients at the College Surgery in Cullompton, Devon, for example, have access to 20 complementary therapists offering osteopathy, reflexology, acupuncture, NLP, Alexander Technique, Indian head massage, healing, herbal medicine and more, for a small fee.

Dr Mike Dixon, GP, explains: “I used to dread appointments with patients with conditions from back pain to allergies, where modern medicine has little to offer. Now I’m able to steer people towards approaches that help them to get better. Long-term disease takes up 80% of our workload as doctors, yet it only affects 20% of the patients.”

Dr Dixon, who is also chair of the NHS Alliance and the College of Medicine, used to take a more conventional approach to medicine until a patient came to him and claimed that she was getting much better treatment from a healer than from him.

“She was ferocious about my ‘atheism’ about complementary medicine, and her healer, a judge’s wife, wanted to come and work at our practice,” says Dixon, who then began investigating such therapies and ended up studying Ayurvedic medicine in India. He now practices acupressure and limited acupuncture.

“Mainstream medicine should be the first to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers, and there is a place for safe and effective complementary therapies”

“I became particularly interested in the human interaction between the complementary therapist and the patient, which was much better than we had. This led to a general interest in therapies as I was so impressed by the way that a one-to-one treatment helped with emotional welfare. It was my first introduction to the real power of the mind.

“People with heart disease, arthritis and lung disease can benefit enormously from therapies. For instance, I might prescribe a herbal medicine for arthritis, providing it doesn’t conflict with the medication they are taking. I might also suggest that they have acupuncture or acupressure for tendonitis. I also give advice on diet, suggesting a lot of fruit and vegetables, but less dairy and meat.”

Dr Roy Welford, a GP and qualified homeopathic doctor at Glastonbury Health Centre, has the same approach: “Mainstream medicine should be the first to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers, and there is a place for safe and effective complementary therapies.”

His practice found that, in particular, patients on benefits and low incomes who would not have been able to afford these therapies, appreciated their provision immensely.

“We felt that it was a good idea to widen access to these therapies for people who could not afford to pay, in a safe environment with accredited practitioners.

“Underlying this approach was the recognition that management of health and healing is also about activating and engaging our innate self-healing ability and by enhancing this, we can empower people to self-manage their own health and encourage more responsibility for their health and wellbeing.”

One of Glastonbury Health Centre’s patients, Mr Casey, 63, has had painful psoriatic arthritis for about 20 years and found relief in complementary therapy.

“I am not keen on even taking painkillers, so when a specialist wanted me to take some very strong drugs I was not happy,” he says. “I do a lot to help myself and am very active, but I don’t want to take drugs that have side effects which can affect other organs and make me then need more drugs to counteract them.

“I asked to be referred to the acupuncturist at the Glastonbury Health Centre, Maria Margarita Terner, and have had six sessions of acupuncture, which has helped a lot in relieving the pain. I would like to feel that I can go to the GP and have a complete choice about the types of treatment I can have.”

Dr Welford explains how the use of complimentary therapies also benefits the medial practice: “The osteopathy and acupuncture service continues at a very cost-effective rate for the NHS. Patients with musculoskeletal problems are referred to the service instead of to physiotherapy, a pain clinic or orthopaedic clinic, so we save money on the cost of that referral and patients get up to six treatments.

Indeed, acupuncture is by far the most popular complimentary therapy for NHS referrals, with over 50 out of a total of 140 primary care trusts (PCTs) providing it for patients. Some 10% of the Acupuncture Council’s members work in the NHS, carrying out 3,000 health service treatments a year.

“We monitored outcomes all along the way and have been able to demonstrate consistently that the service is clinically effective as well as cost-effective,” Dr Welford adds. “In 20 years we have never had a single complaint or recorded any significant adverse effects.”

“Mainstream medicine should be the first to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers, and there is a place for safe and effective complementary therapies.”