The cost of alternative medicine – archive | Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is back in the ring, with the publication this week of the British Medical Association’s critical report on its scientific validity. But while practitioners on both sides are now lining up to take a swing at each other, one aspect that has received very little attention – yet has a crucial effect on the numbers now using alternative medicine, is cost.

The drug companies are often attacked for the enormous profits they make out of patients. But what are the costs for those who go to alternative medicine practitioners? At present, practitioners’ prices vary considerably, according to the particular treatment. Last week, I found I could have an hour with an acupuncturist for £12, with a homeopathic doctor for £18, and with an osteopath or chiropractor for £10. The hypnotherapist cost £35 an hour; the herbalist, £14.

Some practitioners charge less for succeeding visits. But the cost of their prescriptions must also be taken into account. A recent visit to a herbalist cost me £28, in herbal medicine. (Judging by the people flooding into Baldwin’s, the century old herbalist shop in south London, those with just a single ailment short-circuit paying for an hour’s treatment and ask advice over the counter.)

This is not to say that alternative medicine practitioners are exploiting their patients. To have someone listen to you for an hour, check you over and prescribe treatment, for as little as £10 in some instances, seems pretty good value compared with the equivalent cost in orthodox medicine. And people who regularly have treatment from alternative practitioners seem to feel it is well worth the cost.

‘I thought it over carefully before I tried a homeopathic doctor,’ said one woman. ‘I didn’t want to ditch my regular GP, and I haven’t, but I just had a whole number of things wrong with me: asthma, a bit of depression, a cough that never went. And I felt I wanted more than five minutes with my own doctor and a prescription for tranquilisers. I had a whole hour with the homeopathic doctor, in which he asked every imaginable question. I don’t know exactly what he prescribed for me, but it helped a lot. It was about £17 or £18 for the first visit, and about £14 for the second which was shorter. I would willingly have paid twice as much.’

However dismissive the BMA might be, alternative medicine has a growing following. Figures from the Research Council for Complementary Medicine show that 10 per cent of all medical consultations are with non-medically trained practitioners and market research indicates that at least a quarter of the population has tried one form of alternative medicine. A lot of people, at present, can’t begin to afford even the present reasonable prices. Would there be even more alternative patients if the price was more competitive with the NHS?

A herbalist with jars of herbal medicine at Oriental City, Colindale, London. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The Letchworth Centre for Homeopathic and Alternative Medicine in Hertfordshire is convinced that the answer is yes. The centre started two years ago with the aim, says its director, Roberta Meldrum, “of providing low-cost treatment for people who could not otherwise afford it”.

As well as three full-time homeopathic doctors – the third has just been taken on to cope with the ever-increasing number of patients – the centre has an osteopath, physiotherapist, consultant psychologist and a teacher of the Alexander technique. It also runs courses, workshops and lectures on health topics.

From a standing start, the centre now has 900 patients. The need for the various treatments it provides is clearly considerable despite an original lack of awareness about alternative medicine. “We put two lines in the local paper saying, ‘Help for Back Sufferers,’ and that night alone there were 23 messages on the answerphone, before the tape ran out. Some of the people who were ringing up could not even pronounce the world ‘alternative.’ And most had never heard of the Alexander technique.”

Many of the callers were dissatisfied with the results of their orthodox medical treatment. The work of the centre and its relative cheapness became more widely known. People came for conditions like arthritis and asthma and told their friends. Membership fees are £6 for individuals and £12 for families.

“People are very different here from the type who can afford to spend £20 or £30 a visit,” says Roberta Meldrum. “We are aiming at a hard core of people who have given up on orthodox medicine and yet are not the type who are used to paying for private medicine and they have to think many times before contemplating paying for something they have been getting free all their lives. And a lot of single parents come here, and pensioners, and others who are poor. We are unwilling to raise our prices because these people would be too proud to say they couldn’t afford them. We don’t want to lose them.”

But lose them the centre may. Initially, it lost a few thousand pounds, but then bucked up as patient numbers grew. At this stage, it thought it could continue to be self-supporting by charging reasonable fees and holding small fund-raising events. But this has not proved enough; the centre now realises it needs a larger subsidy to manage. It has applied for charitable status and is appealing for £10,000. But it’s hard to get the philosophy across, Roberta Meldrum finds, when talking to businessmen. “People say, ‘Charge a lot, or your work will not be sufficiently valued’.”

This is an edited extract, read on


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *