Can you prescribe fairy dust?

24th August 2007 at 01:00
All of the tests are negative and none of the drugs work. In the last of his summer series, Phil Hammond explains how complementary therapies can work when conventional medicine can't

The popularity of complementary medicine irritates some doctors. One consultant I met used to call the advocates of its use GROLIES Guardian Readers of Limited Intelligence in Ethnic Skirts. That's quite an achievement. All of medical bigotry in one acronym.

GPs are much more inclined towards complementary medicine than hospital doctors. That's because we recognise medicine is as much performance art as science, and there are lots of patients who aren't in the same play.

Say you have pain, distress, despair, loneliness, SATs and tiredness. But you just won't fit into any of our diagnostic boxes. All the tests are negative. None of the drugs work. Something must be done. Consultants can discharge you from the clinic but GPs can't. If you benefit from complementary therapies, who are we to argue? They can meet your emotional and spiritual needs in a way that a blister-pack of ibuprofen just can't manage.

The NHS is driven by targets and trial evidence that uses hard endpoints such as death and disease. Researching into quality of life, happiness and emotional satisfaction is more difficult, but I'm sure would favour complementary therapies.

Rather like comedy, art and religion, whether you find something emotionally or spiritually uplifting is up to you. You can't always predict it on large clinical trials. Placebos have a bad name because of a rubbishing from the drug industry, doubtless piqued by the amount of money they waste on trialling drugs that can't outdo chalk. But I think they're great. I regularly use masturbation, ice-cream and dog wrestling to make me feel better. I'm not sure I'd sell them as therapies, but they work for me.

Others prefer the power of positive thought backed up by fairy dust. There also seems to be a basic human need to believe in the unbelievable. The success of Harry Potter isn't entirely due to the prose style. Medicine used to be magic, doctors used to be "other". But conventional medicine is now endlessly demystified in the media. We're like magicians whose tricks have all been explained. So people are flocking to complementary therapies. "I've got too much jitsu in my tsubo, you say? That'll do nicely here's pound;50."

You can make up your own complementary therapy today, and it'll work if you carry it off with enough conviction. But placebos only keep working if you keep the faith. And the best way of doing that is to serve them up with a big dollop of love. That is why I think these therapies are so popular. Doctors don't do love very well. However, druids do

Dr Phil Hammond is a GP, writer and broadcaster

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