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Alterntive medicine is no quackery

Forty years ago they were regarded as quacks, their patients considered gullible and their remedies dismissed as useless concoctions or wacky therapies. How times have changed.

Complementary and alternative therapies and the people who administer them are becoming increasingly popular and accepted, even by a once sceptical medical establishment. Be it aromatherapy or reflexology, acupuncture and Shiatsu or homeopathy and cranial osteopathy, alternative remedies popularized by royalty and film stars have mushroomed into a billion dollar industry.

Even the esteemed British Medical Journal, one of the leading medical journals, has featured a series on alternative therapies because of demand from doctors for more information. "Our readers wanted it," said editor Richard Smith. "They wanted it because their patients are interested in it and because they are wondering whether to refer people. They want to know that works and what doesn't."

Such is the popularity of complementary medicine that doctors on both sides of the Atlantic have urged their governments to provide more funding for research into alternative therapies, ranging from plant remedies for depression such as St. John's Wort (hypericum perforatum) to acupuncture and reflexology.

The Hale Clinic, favoured by the late Princess Diana and other celebrities, offers more than 40 therapies, a dispensary and book shop at its elegant Regents Part in address North London. Prince Charles, a supporter of alternative medicine, officially opened the private clinic in 1988. Founder Theresa Hale has not looked back since. The former Yoga teacher identified a growing demand for natural therapies and a need to provide a variety of treatments for patients. Her foresight led to the establishment of Britain's leading complementary medicine clinic. The clinic now treats 5,000 people a month and is planning to expand abroad in the US and Germany. Hale credits a desire for a more natural approach, soaring health costs and a proactive population with the boom in complementary medicine.

"The whole process is designed to reactivate the body's immune response. When we are fit and healthy, it means our bodies are working properly and keeping the germs and bugs at bay. It is only because the immune system falls down that we get ill," said Michael Endecott, research director of the Institute for Complementary Medicine in London.

The charitable foundation, which was established in 1982, has set up a registry of complementary practitioners which has 2,000 members so far. It covers about 100 different therapies.

Endecott is convinced the upsurge in the industry is a result of what he called it's "success ratio" and an increasing desire of people to treat health problems in a natural way. Arthritis, rheumatism and allergies are just a few of the illnesses that can be treated so successfully that all symptoms disappear. The most high profile therapies, in his estimation, are osteopathy and acupuncture but massage, aromatherapy and hypnotherapy are also high on the list. There is little scientific data to prove the worth of many treatments. Endecott and others are trying to conduct scientific research on these therapies but funding is hard to come by. Another problem is virtually anyone can hang up a sign and start practicing many of the therapies.

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