by Clive Wood, tutor in the Department of Lifelong Learning, Cardiff University
Complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) is the name given to all of those treatments that fall outside the scope of 'conventional' medicine. They include hands-on treatments like massage and osteopathy. Other approaches, like healing and acupuncture aim to rebalance your body's energy levels. Nutritional remedies include herbal medicine and the use of dietary supplements.
In recent years, CAM has become increasingly popular. Surveys suggest that as many as one person in every five has used some form of CAM to complement the treatment that they receive from their doctor.
Support for CAM from the National Assembly
Two years ago the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, announced a move to integrate complementary medicine more closely with the NHS in Wales. For example, the National Assembly bought and distributed 1,000 copies of a booklet called Complementary Healthcare: a guide for patients. This was produced by The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH).
You can get a free copy directly from the Foundation website
The Assembly also works with the FIH to provide awards for integrated health care projects. The 2005 prize went to an initiative at Merthyr Tydfil Hospital to provide massage and relaxation for older adults with mental health problems.
CAM on the NHS?
The Assembly is currently looking at the value of CAM in treating back pain. This will help Local Health Boards to decide whether to commission back pain treatment from CAM practitioners.
There are also plans for a 'core group' of GPs with a particular interest in CAM to provide master classes for other GPs across Wales. They will talk about the closer integration of such treatments into General Practice.
So, will CAM ever be provided on the NHS? Not in the immediate future, despite these encouraging signs.
Finding a therapist
At present, if you want a complementary therapist, you will have to find him or her and pay for the treatment yourself. To find one, you can look at a publication like Aura which is distributed free in South Wales, or simply look for, say, 'osteopaths' in the Yellow Pages.
Unfortunately, these listings do not tell you how experienced or competent the practitioner may be. But the FIH patient's guide give addresses for the various professional organizations that many therapists belong to. These organisations may be able to provide you with a list of the practitioners (for example, acupuncturists) in your area.
What to ask
From there on it's up to you. When you make the first contact don't be afraid to ask the therapist about anything that concerns you.
Questions to ask your therapist
- What are his or her professional qualifications?
- Are they covered by insurance to protect their patients?
- How long have they been practicing?
- Do they have experience of treating conditions like yours?
- How are you likely to feel after a session, and roughly how many sessions would they recommend?
Most real professionals won't mind answering these questions. Indeed, they will welcome them.
Then there is the issue of cost. Charges vary widely, from perhaps £25-£50 per session, depending on the type of therapy and where you live. Some health insurance schemes may pay for some CAM treatments, but you'd better check in advance. The first session may be longer and more expensive than the others. That's because the therapist will need to take all the details of your complaint and give you a complete examination before starting to treat you.
Do I tell my GP?
Should you tell your GP that you are having complementary therapy? Absolutely - and preferably before the treatment actually starts. Your GP may actually support the idea of your having, say, chiropractic treatment for your back pain or homeopathy for your allergies.
However, there are both professional and financial reasons why most GPs won't actually refer you to a CAM practitioner at present. This situation may change, and the Assembly Government is developing initiatives in that direction. But at the moment in Wales, any CAM that you receive is likely to be with your doctor's knowledge, but at you own expense.