Thursday, 4 June 2009

Regulating the charlatans

An organisation was set up last year with £900,000 of the Department of Health's (i.e. our) money channelled via Prince Charles' lobby group, the preposterous Foundation for Integrated Health, which also got a million pounds from the King's Fund. The aim is to provide a system of voluntary regulation covering the practitioners of such things as Reiki, Aromatherapy, Chiropractic, Craniosacral Therapy, Homeopathy and all the rest of the unproven alternative or complementary healing techniques; there are said to be 150,000 of these snake oil salesmen in the UK.

Inevitably, the organisation has been dubbed OfQuack, and if you click on that name in Google you are taken straight to the official website of The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, or CNHC.

From the start, this project attracted the scorn of both sides in the argument between believers or vendors of quack remedies or therapies and those who put their faith in evidence-based medicine: the professional bodies who claim (falsely) to regulate the alternative disciplines and who fear interference from the new body, and those who believe that voluntary "regulation" can serve no useful purpose.

By now it is clear that most practitioners of alternative medicine have no intention of applying for registration by the CNHC, who had hoped to register 10,000 of them during 2009. Five months after the CNHC register opened, only three professional bodies have registered and are encouraging their members to sign up to it (homeopaths, the largest group, are firmly opposed), and a very small number have actually done so. This is only guesswork; no figures are available, for having initially promised to be open and transparent in their dealings, the CNHC have now become very secretive, understandably wanting to conceal just how badly the whole enterprise is failing: their website gives no details, and enquiries are unanswered or met with vague assurances that all is well.

Even their funders, the Department of Health, who might have been expected to be keeping an eye on them, are tight-lipped and assert that they have been given no reports of progress from the CNHC and have not even asked for any. However, there are currently four requests for information lodged with them; under the Freedom of Information Act the DH is obliged to respond within twenty working days of the requests being made, so we might eventually learn something from their responses.

Meanwhile, I wrote to the CNHC's Board Chair asking why they had apparently dropped their commitment to openness. This was her reply:

Thank you for your recent email regarding the CNHC Board notes which were recently placed on the web site. Your views have been noted regarding their content.
Despite your obvious misgivings, I would re-iterate CNHC's wish to be as open and transparent as possible. To this end I have already put an item on the July Board agenda to re-look at our commitments in this respect.
I note that you have copied your letter to me to all the Board members and will, of course, also forward to them a copy of my response to you.
With kind regards, Maggy Wallace

They need a Board Meeting to decide if openness means reporting their progress?


Clive Barker said...

I am a professional Shiatsu Practitioner. I am here at this blog because I received an unsolicited email from James Smith about CNHC, (I have no idea who he is or what axe he has to grind) and I thought I should look a little deeper.
I am concerned at the lack of objectivity in the comments just as I am very concerned about CNHC.

I resent the description Regulating the Charlatans - there are some nonsense therapies but there are many professional and competent practitioners doing excellent work. Regulation is about safeguarding the public and there is a lot more to that than screening out charlatans. Even in respectable therapies I have seen practitioners manipulate and abuse clients into dependency, and levels of treatment quality that borders on incompetence

I searched the CNHC site to see if my profession is in anyway 'represented' and to ascertain what their assessment criteria are and whether I would pass. I failed to find the information so I guess I will never know if I could be 'regulated'.

There is a Shiatsu regulatory council but my impression is that there were major internal political problems and fighting over who has the power - just the right attitude in applying a healing therapy - not.

Maybe I have missed the point but I cannot see how voluntary regulation will address the issue of what therapies work and in what circumstances. That requires scientific studies and funding which is notable by its absence.

And one final question, do blogs contribute to the debate or to confusion and prejudice?

Tony said...

Clive Barker:
Don't worry about the CNHC: as you say, voluntary regulation is pointless, and in any case they have specifically ruled out any consideration of the efficacy of the disciplines whose practitioners they hope to register. They are keeping the number of registrants they have acquired since January a tight secret, but this is certainly only a tiny proportion of the 10,000 which they had hoped to have by the end of 2009.

Since many of the professional bodies representing CAM practitioners (including the homeopaths) want nothing to do with them, it is unlikely that they will succeed in their objective of becoming an accepted regulator for the whole field of CAM, and if they survive at all they will be largely irrelevant

Many blogs do make a very useful contribution indeed to the CAM debate: Try this one for a start.

Tony said...

This post evoked a large number of comments from CAM practitioners or proponents, nearly all of them muddled, rambling, insulting or just plain daft. Many were anonymous and hardly any were worth responding to or even publishing.

Tony said...

Still the idiotic comments keep coming; a recent one began "All medicine is placebo"; so much for Lister, Harvey, Fleming, Jenner, Salk and their peers.