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Healing, Hype or Harm?

High-profile academic Professor Edzard Ernst takes the editorial reins for a collection of essays about the benefits – or otherwise – of complementary therapies.

High-profile academic Professor Edzard Ernst takes the editorial reins for a collection of essays about the benefits – or otherwise – of complementary therapies.

This book is a challenging collection of essays about complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) edited by Edward Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exteter.

It looks at such aspects as legality and ethics, as well as patient choice and the concept of holism, and tries to delve into the appeal of CAM.

It is not clear to me which discipline some of the authors come from, although Michael Baum and Michael Fitzpatrick are known to many and recognisably medical doctors.

I think there are some difficulties in discussing the whole of CAM as an entity: I wouldn't place iridology in a group with acupuncture.

But as Stephane Lejeune mentions in his essay, changes in society make CAM attractive. ‘Why has modernity such a negative meaning in people's minds?' he asks.

Michael Fitzpatrick's essay is entitled ‘Reclaiming compassion,' and notes that ‘health is no longer a default state, but an ideal state that can only be attained through an evaluation of risk and pursuit of virtuous behaviour'

At the same time, this occurs in a climate of distrust in science, loss of collective faith and spirituality and lack of close social bonds.

The chapter on evidence reminds us that to most people personal experience is rated most highly, even though scientifically its ranking is low.

There is also some plain-speaking discussion on the harm of offering something that doesn't work; the lack of regulations on what is not measurable and the problems of offering ‘patient choice' when rationing and commissioning demands evidence and cost effectiveness.

Much of CAM would seem to offer something to many people that conventional medicine does not.

At a time when general practice is directed towards data collection, outcome measures and efficiency, many of us would like to have more time for the ‘softer', less measurable aspects of our job.

This book provokes and informs discussion when it reminds us that much of CAM talks of healing rather than curing, and whatever the lack of science we need to understand its appeal.

Dr Linden Ruckert

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