MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

The Telegraph today reports that, despite relentless lobbying from the Prince of Wales, UK  herbalists will not, after all, be regulated by statute. Here are the most important statements from this article:

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…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…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…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”.

Perhaps I should first state that I was not involved in any way in this process. Furthermore, I must say that I do think it is the right decision. To understand it better, I need to refer to several previous posts: yes, some herbal medicines are demonstrably effective. But the regulation in question is NOT about herbal medicines; it is about herbal practitioners, and the two are not necessarily related. UK herbal practitioners practice within a range of  traditions including traditional European herbalism, TCM, or other schools of thought. They differ vastly but have one characteristic in common: they individualise their prescriptions according to the specific characteristics of the patient. Thus they would rarely prescribe the evidence-based herbal medicines but mix up prescriptions composed of several herbal ingredients. The problems with this approach are numerous:

  • there is no good evidence that this approach of individualised herbalism is effective;
  • the safety of the herbs used by traditional herbalists is often unknown;
  • traditional herbalists tend to use obsolete diagnostic techniques, false-positive and false-negative diagnoses are thus inevitable;
  • some of the herbal mixtures have been shown to be contaminated with toxic ingredients;
  • some mixtures are adulterated with powerful prescription drugs;
  • the herbal ingredients could interact with each other in an unpredictable manner;
  • the herbal mixtures might interact with prescribed drugs.

The long and short of it is that nobody knows whether the treatments of traditional herbalists generate more good than harm. Regulating these professions by statute would merely give them a level of credibility that they do not deserve. As with the regulation of chiropractors or osteopaths in the UK, the regulation of herbalists would simply misled the public about the value of traditional herbalism, and it most likely would have prompted the herbalists to happily rest on their assumed merits claiming that their effectiveness and safety has been officially acknowledged and is therefore no longer in doubt.

In a nutshell: THE ‘PROPER’ REGULATION OF NONSENSE GENERATES PROPER NONSENSE

10 Responses to Once again: the regulation of nonsense will generate nonsense – the case of UK herbalists

  • In the piece offered by Edzard Ernst is the sentence: “He (Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association) said the public needed the reassurance of statutory regulation, to know that any herbal doctor who is practising had received some training.”
    Did he really say that? “Any herbal doctor”?
    Surely he knows doctors are indeed already regulated, by the GMC.
    Any registered medical practitioner can use any herb the wish. They can purchase and ground down any potpourri – but will be accountable to the GMC for their practice.
    Any person can style themselves ‘doctor’, whether or not they are a RMP or academically entitled, and prescribe herbs vitamins, supplements and chemicals privately as they like, within current legislation – but they must not commit fraud by holding out they are medically qualified when they are not.
    Is McIntyre claiming herbalists are ‘doctors’ or is he just confused? Or trying to confuse others?
    Patients already have all the protection they need.
    If they are gullible and vulnerable they may need better explanation from the Government (just as the government advises on smoking and obesity), but that’s it.
    Folks who wish to practice medicine should qualify as medical practitioners.
    That’s why the medical profession was created as such (Medical Act 1858).
    Herbalists and their ilk should not seek to mislead patients and undermine the regulations already in place.
    That is what quacks would do.

    • The report and the minutes of their meetings are available here: Advice on regulating herbal medicines and practitioners.

    • I’m quite surprised by the timing of the publication of this significant report. Presumably because of the customary ban on press releases in the pre-election period, it appears not to have been given the usual publicity one would normally have expected And the report itself is presented in the simplest most stripped down form, rather than as a properly published document.

      Let us hope that the six recommendations made do not get kicked into the proverbial long grass as election fever overtakes us, and then a new Government decides that this report is a low priority for follow up.

  • Extraordinary!

    Has there, at last, been an outbreak of sanity in the attitude of the establishment to the practitioners of SCAM?

    Similarly to Richard Rawlins, I also find it both illuminating and worrying that Michael McIntyre appears confused about what constitutes a “herbal doctor”. I assume that he does not intend to imply that there are doctors made of herbs, but every other possible connotation of his statement is deeply flawed.

  • Further to the above, when I see the phrase “herbal doctor” I involuntarily recall Shaggy from Scooby Doo, at best, or Danny from Withnail & I at worst.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094336/quotes?qt=qt1559067

  • many herbalist claimed that their methods cure all the disease. but i think its nonsense. its only a myth that build for grow up their market…

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