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   Mar 29

Herbal doctors will not be regulated, despite pleas from Prince Charles

The practice of alternative medicine will not be regulated, after health officials concluded there is insufficient evidence that it works.

The Government U-turn, in a ruling from the country’s deputy chief medical officer, comes despite lobbying from the Prince of Wales.

Proponents of complementary medicine last night accused health officials of “putting public safety at risk,” by recommending against setting up a statutory register of herbal practitioners.

Prof David Walker, deputy chief medical officer, said he had taken the decision because there was insufficient evidence that the alternative therapy works, making it impossible to set standards of good practice.

Three years ago ministers had pledged to bring in an official register of practitioners of herbal and Chinese medicines, which would see therapists regulated alongside other health workers, such as physiotherapists and speech therapists.

It followed two public consultations which found overwhelming support for the proposals.

But ministers blocked the proposals, instead setting up a new committee, led by the NHS deputy chief medical officer – which has now ruled against statutory regulation.

The decision came despite lobbying from Prince Charles, a keen advocate of complementary medicines, and a supporter of regulation, who held a meeting with Jeremy Hunt in 2013 in which his concerns were raised.

Labour ministers have disclosed that the Prince has discussed other areas of alternative medicine, such as homeopathy, in meetings with Andy Burnham, when he was Health Secretary.

There has been speculation that alternative medicine is likely to be among the topics discussed in private correspondence between the Prince and government ministers.

Earlier this week, Britain’s highest court ruled that the “black spider memos” sent by the Prince to seven departments in Tony Blair’s Labour government will be made public within weeks. The Prince expressed “disappointment” at the decision, although aides insisted he was “relaxed” about light being shed on his lobbying.

The new ruling on herbal medicine comes 15 years after regulation of herbal practitioners was first recommended to the Department of Health (DoH) by the House of Lords Science and Technology committee.

Two DoH working groups backed the idea, and in 2011 then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley pledged to introduce a statutory register.

However, health ministers later decided to set up the working party, led by England’s deputy chief medical officer – which in a new report, has recommended against regulation.

Prof Walker said that although most herbal practitioners were in favour of regulation, those opposed to it feared it would “confer an inappropriate level of legitimacy on herbal practice which was poorly supported by scientific evidence.”

He said the decision to rule against regulation was “undoubtedly the most contentious area” addressed by the working party, which also looked at the safety of herbal medicine products.

Instead, the report calls for a review of all ingredients sold in such medicines, to check their safety, with a “voluntary register” for practitioners who use them.

It says there is too little evidence to show that herbal medicines improve health outcomes, making it “difficult to establish the boundaries of good practice” in regulating practitioners.

It also says there is very little understanding of the risks posed to patients from current practices in herbal medicine.

Although manufactured herbal products such as St John’s wort, echinacea and black cohosh are registered by medicine regulators, individual practitioners can prepare treatments on their premises, as long as they do not contain restricted substances.

The Prince has long campaigned for regulation of the complementary health profession, which will prompt speculation he may be disappointed by the Government decision.

He set up a charity which in 2006 called for better research and regulation of complementary medicine so “patients can be confident of its safety and effectiveness.”

Yesterday Clarence House declined to comment. The Prince of Wales is understood to favour a more holistic approach to healthcare, combining conventional and complementary therapies.

Prof Walker’s recommendation has triggered an immediate rift among the 26 members of his working party.

Twelve members of the working party have written to Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, alleging that the decision will put the safety of the public at risk, because anyone will be able to promote themselves as an expert in herbal medicine, without any training.

Research suggests around three million Britons a year consult herbal practitioners, operating in shops, online and in private clinics, with up to one in 12 of all adults using a herbal medicine at some stage.

Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association, said the decision not to regulate practitioners could put the public at risk from rogue operators, with no training.

The herbal practitioner, who was a member of the DoH working party, said: “We are deeply disappointed by this. We feared this issue was going to be kicked into the long grass, by quietly putting something out just before the election – and that is exactly what has happened.”

He said the public needed the reassurance of statutory regulation, to know that any herbal doctor who is practising had received some training.

The association disputed claims there was insufficient evidence to show that herbal medicines worked, saying that several trials had shown its impact for a number of conditions, but that the sector had less money than the pharmaceutical industry had to undertake mass research.

The report says that although ministers promised “some form of regulation of herbal practitioners” this only committed the working party to consider the options, and that the introduction of regulation would require the sector to be “more science and evidence-based”.

Source: The Telegraph

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