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'If only a rub down with rose petals could cure ill health'


We know that the history of medicine is in part a history of brutalism.

Surgery was torture without the interrogation. Psychiatry was masochism in a different coat and pharmaceuticals an experiment in chemistry.

We are at a more fortunate point and benefit from a medical sophistication that borders on miraculous. However, even now some interventions can seem brutal, almost primitive in their ability to make patients feel worse. From a distance, they can seem toxic, even violent; close up, we can see that they can appear harmful, invasive. Medicine sometimes wages a war on illness, and who likes war?

So we have complementary therapies. Let’s face it, we would like it to be the case that a dab behind the ears with some ylang ylang and a rub down with rose petals would cure all our ails. We would like to find a cure for cancer by humming like a giant bee or by sipping the diluted wee of elves through a straw made of goats’ horn. However, most clinical trials - and I don’t want to give the impression of rushing to judgement here - seem to suggest that not only do these interventions not work but also there are no such things as elves.

Many people like the idea of comple-mentary therapies because they seem quite nice. They don’t so much want to wage war on arthritis as befriend it, try to understand it, buy it some Darjeeling tea and carrot cake before building it a yurt where it can live out its time without doing any more harm.

And they are soothing. People who do complementary therapies always work in nice-smelling rooms, with no wafts of industrial-strength disinfectant and wee. And they offer you their undivided attention because, given you are paying them by the hour, it is the very least they can do. But undivided attention is nice, isn’t it?

However - and here is the rub - while they may make us feel better, the way a hot bath, a hug or a good cry might, they don’t cure us. Not really. If they did, if the right smell or the right crystal made any significant difference to illness, we would know by now. We don’t, not because our scientific method is unable to pick up the nuances of homeopathy or the power of mime, but because they don’t really work.

So, the suggestion that emerged last week from researchers at Bournemouth that nurses are best placed to integrate complementary medicine into the NHS may be as ridiculous as reflexology. The researchers acknowledge the reasons for the popularity of complementary medicine remain unclear, so one cannot help but wonder why we would be looking to integrate it. Because it is popular? Because patients might want it?

Nurses are well placed to integrate complementary medicine. But then they are also quite well placed to sell car insurance, conduct MORI polls and promote the health benefits of interpretative dance. That doesn’t mean they should do it.

The idea that the popularity of something - particularly a popularity sculpted from frailty and need - should direct a health policy is a worrying expression of the customer culture and one that should be wholly resisted.

In these economically challenging times, the NHS needs to be more focused than ever on its core purpose: addressing the health needs of the population. The pursuit of happiness is too wide a remit. And, frankly, nurses have far more important things to do then usher in and integrate financially draining mini industries of nonsense.

Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.


Readers' comments (10)

  • Well said!! I couldn't agree more! Its wonderful that complementary therapies can make patients "feel better" within themselves however I don't think its a nurses job to push people in that direction, after it is a clinical profession!

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  • Good grief we hardly have time to wash and feed patients and dish out the real medicines, when are we supposed to find time for handing out the "eye of newt?"

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  • Now now, people. Whilst I agree that clinical trials have proven a lot of what is classed as 'complimentary therapy' does not work, we have to remember that 'complimentary therapy' is an extremely large umbrella and encompasses a lot of things that DO work too, so it is unhelpful to class it all as 'eye of newt' stuff. For example, I would agree that the usual hippy chick aromatherapy for example is rubbish, has been proven not to work and I would never advise my patients to use it to cure cancer or whatever, what about other 'complimentary therapies' such as Yoga or Tai Chi or massage for example(yes technically they are under the same label too). I have advised many patients that alongside their traditional western treatment, doing a bit of gentle excercise and Tai Chi may help their recovery from their knee op or whatever they have had.

    We should be careful about grouping everything into the one catch all of 'complimentary therapy'. Some of it as has been said is crap, but some of it IS helpful too.

    Having said that, I do absolutely agree that the NHS should concentrate on it's core purpose of adressing clinical needs.

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  • I've been doing a little Tai Chi recently Mike. Really hurts my back :-)

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  • Complimentary therapy / alternative therapy / eye of toad, leg of bat - sometimes the simple things offer some comfort or take the edge of distress for some patients. It works, it is (probably mostly) harmless and conveys something that cannot be measured by a clinical investigation of some kind. I can't quantify it but i won't knock it either.....

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  • It's about time something like this was said.
    Well put.

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  • mike, Are not the complimentary therapies you have just described also known as exercise and relaxation?

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  • I have used massage and acupressure on hemiplegic shoulders with great success in alleviating pain and improving movement.

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  • I would enjoy my nurses conveying my diagnosis through interpretive dance. Hospitals feel surreal enough to most patients, may as well go the whole way.

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  • Those community and primary care nurses using maluka honey on leg ulcers with great effect, midwives using arnica post delivery and hypercal cream for nipple soreness in breastfeeding patients, and physiotherapists pain clinic nurses using acupuncture in mainstream hospital departments are being done a disservice by Mike.. but then they are getting on with their jobs knowing that these 'complementary' therapies help.

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