Regulation of alternative therapies comes nearer

From The Times, January 5 (by Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor)

Aromatherapy, homoeopathy and other popular complementary therapies are to be regulated for the first time under a government-backed scheme to be established this year. 

The new Natural Healthcare Council – which is being backed by the Prince of Wales – will be able to strike off errant or incompetent practitioners. It will also set minimum standards for practitioners to ensure that therapists are properly qualified.

Patients will be able to complain to the council about practitioners and the new body will be modelled on the General Medical Council and other similar statutory bodies.

Millions of Britons currently spend £130 million a year on complementary treatments and it is estimated that this will reach £200 million over the next four years. Among the practices to be covered by the scheme would be aromatherapy, reflexology, massage, nutrition, shiatzu, reiki, naturopathy, yoga, homoeopathy, cranial osteopathy and the Alexander and Bowen techniques.

However, there have been long-standing concerns over its regulation. At present anyone can set themselves up as an acupuncturist, homoeopath, herbalist, or other complementary therapist. However, a poll for The Times found that three quarters of people assumed that anyone practising complementary therapy is trained and registered by a professional body.

Although the scheme will initially be voluntary, it is hoped that all practitioners will be forced to join or lose business as the public will use the register as a guarantee of quality. The council will register only practitioners who are safe, have completed a recognised course, are insured and have signed up to codes of conduct.

Both alternative and complementary approaches to medicine – when a therapy is used as an alternative to conventional medicine and when it is used in conjunction with it – will be covered by the new regulator, although treatment without consideration of mainstream medicine is likely to come under greater scrutiny.

A number of high-profile cases in which therapists have assaulted clients have reached the courts in recent years. In 2000, a man claiming to be an aromatherapist was spared a jail sentence after being convicted of indecently assaulting a woman who came to him to treatment. An osteopath from Ipswich was jailed last February for seven and a half years after a series of sexual assaults.

But as the law stands, there is nothing to prevent such people setting up in practice again. By checking that they remain registered with the new council, patients will gain reassurance.

Only mainstream alternative therapies such as traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture are to be the subject of statutory regulation. Osteopathy and chiropractic are already covered by such legislation.

The council, whose formation has been driven by the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health, will consist of lay people appointed through an independent process, with a clear division between it and the professional bodies representing the therapies that it will cover.

The work of setting up the council, which is likely to be finished by the spring, led by Dame Joan Higgins, has been funded by the Department of Health and it will follow the best-practice model set out by the department in its white paper on regulation, Trust, Assurance and Safety.

Ian Cambray-Smith, of the foundation, said: "Although it is a voluntary scheme, we believe that in dealing with misconduct by therapists it will be almost as robust as statutory regulation, and as tough as we can make it. Suspension from the register will be the ultimate sanction.

"It will be good for practitioners, good for patients, and even good for the NHS. If there is a complaint, the council will convene a board of lay people, plus two practitioners, to review the case. If it is proven, a second board will determine what disciplinary procedures to take."

The NHS spends £50 million a year on complementary therapies that will be covered by the new council.

The council – eight people plus a chairman – will be financed by registration fees from practitioners and will have a permanent staff, who are in the process of being recruited.