In recent years, there has been an enormous growth in the use of complementary medicine - not only in Britain but also in other European countries, the United States and other parts of the world. More and more people are turning to homoeopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture, osteopathy and a wide range of other treatments - mainly paid for out of their own pockets. I believe that this trend reflects a growing concern with the use of more and more powerful drugs and a potentially rather impersonal approach to healthcare. There is a feeling not only among patients, but also among GPs, nurses and other mainstream health practitioners, that there needs to be greater integration and inter-professional collaboration in patient care and that we can each, as individuals, play a greater role in contributing towards our own health and well-being. Health should be much more than the mere absence of disease or infirmity; and we should strive to ensure that everybody can fulfil the full potential and expression of their lives.
This is not to deny the value of the dramatic scientific discoveries, for example in molecular biology, that have enabled Western medicine to make leaps in our understanding of the disease process, and how to treat it. Serious illnesses and injuries that were once regarded as untreatable can now be cured and new forms of treatment are being developed all the time. I am confident that this trend will continue. Yet we know that new medical treatments and procedures can be costly to develop, and sometimes costly in application. As medicine becomes more sophisticated and more ambitious, so the costs have tended to rise.
Against this background, it hardly needs saying that we should try to make the best use of all our available resources. That is where complementary medicine could have an important - indeed, vital - role to play, in supporting and complementing current orthodox medical practice. Often it seems that complementary medicine can bring a different perspective and fulfil a real human need for a more personal touch which, in turn, can help unlock the individual's inner resources to aid the healing process. The goal we must work towards is an integrated healthcare system in which all the knowledge, experience and wisdom accumulated in different ways, at different times and in different cultures is effectively deployed to prevent or alleviate human suffering.
Over the past two decades, I have supported efforts to focus healthcare on the particular needs of the individual patient, employing the best and most appropriate forms of treatment from both orthodox and complementary medicine in a more integrated way. I have been greatly encouraged to see the progress which has been made in increasing the range of choice available to the individual and to the medical practitioner. These changes in attitude were reflected in the BMA's report 'Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice', published in 1993, and a report by the General Medical Council - 'Tomorrow's Doctor' - in the same year. Some complementary treatments are now available within the National Health Service and an independent survey for the Department of Health in 1995 showed that almost 40% of GP partnerships in England provide access to complementary medicine for NHS patients, either by undertaking these treatments themselves or by delegating them to a complementary practitioner. Acupuncture, homoeopathy and osteopathy were the most frequently used.
There has been progress in education and in standard-setting, too. There has been an increase in the number of accredited university courses for students wishing to study for a career in a number of different complementary medical professions. Two of these - osteopathy and chiropractic - have recently become regulated by Act of Parliament and some of the other professions are working hard to establish credible and effective systems of professional self-regulation.
But there is still a great deal to do. Last year I asked a group of leading individuals from different scientific, educational and healthcare backgrounds for their advice on how we could make further progress. We established four working groups and produced a draft report on what seemed to be the main issues, which was circulated for comment to a large number of individuals and organisations with an interest in orthodox and complementary healthcare. These included royal colleges, leading researchers, medical schools, consumers of healthcare and bodies representing practitioners of complementary medicine.
The results of 18 months' discussion and consultation are published today in a new report entitled 'Integrated Healthcare: A Way Forward for the Next Five Years?' I pay tribute in particular to the dedication and commitment of those who chaired and participated in the working groups.
The report makes 28 specific proposals for further consideration and development. It suggests ways of introducing effective systems of self-regulation for complementary medical professions and therapies to protect the public. It explains how research into the safety and effectiveness of complementary medicine might be organised and funded. It proposes developments in education and training for both orthodox and complementary practitioners, draws attention to good practice in the delivery of integrated healthcare and suggests a wider and more detailed survey to form the basis of future guidance on best practice.
But the report is not a definitive blueprint for action. Its purpose is to stimulate a wider public and professional debate about the possible role of complementary medicine within the changing pattern of healthcare in this country.
For me, the most heartening finding of the work so far has been the very wide measure of agreement between orthodox and complementary practitioners on the need for this to succeed. It seems to me that we have reached a defining moment in our attitude towards healthcare in this country. I believe that we have a unique opportunity to take stock and consider how we can make the very best use of all our precious healthcare resources. We must respond to what the public are clearly showing they want by placing more emphasis on prevention, healthy lifestyles and patient-centred care. Integrated healthcare is an achievable goal. It is one we cannot afford to miss.