Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Medicine in Europe: Complementary medicine in Europe

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 09 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:107
  1. Peter Fisher, consultant physiciana,
  2. Adam Ward, consultant orthopaedic physiciana
  1. a Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London WC1N 3HR
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Fisher.

    Complementary or unconventional treatments are used by many doctors and other therapists throughout Europe. The major forms are acupuncture, homoeopathy, manual therapy or manipulation, and phytotherapy or herbal medicine. The relative popularity of therapies differs between countries, but public demand is strong and growing. Regulation of practitioners varies widely: in most countries only registered health professionals may practice, but in the United Kingdom practice is virtually unregulated. Germany and some Scandinavian countries have intermediate systems. Legal reforms are in progress in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. European institutions are starting to influence the development of complementary medicine. Harmonisation of training and regulation of practitioners is the challenge for the future.

    To speak of “alternative” medicine is, as Pietroni has pointed out, like talking about foreigners—both terms are vaguely pejorative and refer to large, heterogeneous categories defined by what they are not rather than by what they are.1 The analogy is apt: the current worldwide trend away from suspicion and hostility between “orthodox” and “alternative” medicine towards investigation, understanding, and consumer protection can be compared with the process by which Europeans have learnt to view each other as partners rather than foreigners. This shift in attitude is evident in the BMA's recent publication, Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice,2 and in the use of the term “complementary” rather than “alternative.” We welcome this new spirit and believe it will benefit patients.

    Even the term complementary medicine is not entirely satisfactory, lumping together as it does a wide range of methods with little in common except that they are outside the mainstream of medicine. The most accurate term is perhaps “unconventional therapeutic methods.”

    The public

    Consumer surveys consistently show positive public attitudes to complementary medicine, with about 60% of the public in the Netherlands3 and Belgium4 declaring themselves …

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