Patients are the real losers in the complementary medicine debate

One of the most important questions about complementary medicine - does it generate more harm than good - remains unanswered because two alternative and antagonistic attitudes are influencing the evidence, says an expert today.

In an editorial in BMJ Clinical Evidence, Professor Edzard Ernst says that patients are being continuously and seriously misled by both sides of the debate on complementary medicine.

The sceptics often ignore the evidence for complementary medicine, he says. Despite thousands of clinical trials and hundreds of systematic reviews, mainstream journals rarely publish positive findings, giving the impression that little serious research is being done in this field, or that the findings show complementary medicine to be useless or even dangerous.

In contrast, he argues, the proponents claim that “scientific evidence cannot be applied to complementary medicine” when the data fail to show what they had hoped for.

But the real loser in these ongoing disputes is the patient, warns Ernst.

He points out that complementary medicine has become important not because of the eagerness of doctors, the interests of scientists or the attention of politicians, but because of the “almost insatiable hunger of patients.”

It is patients who are bearing the burden of the £1.6 billion spent in Britain each year on complementary medicine - these therapies are rarely available on the National Health Service - but with little evidence available to them about what really works.

So what can be done? Reliable information intended specifically for lay people must be produced as a matter of urgency, he concludes.

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