and dangerous, says Britain's foremost expert
By BARBARA ROWLANDS Last updated at 08:53am on 12th December 2006
at least acupuncture isn't dismissed . . . totally.
A lot of complementary medicine is ineffective, and some positively dangerous. Meanwhile, alternative treatments that promise to cure cancer 'are downright irresponsible, if not criminal'.
These are the views not of an old-school doctor dismissive of alternative therapies, but of Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain's first professor of complementary medicine and, you would have assumed, its greatest champion.
Acupuncture gets the thumbs up. It's good for pain, particularly back pain, though it has nothing to do with mysterious energy flows, as many therapists claim. 'Acupuncture works in a physical way: it's nothing to do with yin and yang,' he says.
Herbal medicines - though not all of them - also pass muster because their success in treating a number of specific conditions has been demonstrated.
But most therapies don't come up to scientific scratch. In a series of articles for the trade publication Independent Nurse, reprinted on the publishers' website healthcarerepublic.com, he gives most the thumbs down.
Practitioners accuse Professor Ernst of trying to shoehorn therapies which are individually tailored to the patient into the straitjacket of a double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial - the gold standard for conventional medicine.
In such a trial, a drug and a placebo pill are distributed at random to selected patients. Neither patient nor scientist knows who gets what. The code is broken only at the end and the results analysed.
Practitioners question how a treatment such as homeopathy or acupuncture, which treats the 'whole' person not just the symptom, can be subjected to such a study.
Ernst concedes that the 'bog-standard' randomised clinical trial is sometimes not completely suited to a number of treatments, but says he and his team work hard to find new ways of testing different therapies.
There are ways of doing clinical trials,' he says, 'where you can have the full spectrum of individu-alisation, holism and so on. You need to think a bit more - it's a challenge.'