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Plans for regulation are a royal mess

Interference from the Prince of Wales in the debate over the statutory regulation of complementary medicine is an abuse of power.

Interference from the Prince of Wales in the debate over the statutory regulation of complementary medicine is an abuse of power.

For several years, the Prince of Wales' Foundation for Integrated Health has worked on the regulation of British complementary medicine practitioners with around £2 million of support from the Department of Health and The Kings Fund.

A proposal for regulating herbalists, traditional medicine practitioners and acupuncturists was thus developed and recently sent out for consultation. But several important bodies, including the Royal College of Physicians, seem to be opposing it rather vehemently.

While the DH is considering the comments, Prince Charles, his Foundation and several of its supporters have started lobbying vociferously in favour of the proposed regulation. In a way, I do sympathise – the Foundation would look like a silly club of time wasters if we, as a nation, came to the conclusion that the £2 million we spent on something was not worth the paper it is printed on.

So the supporters argue that not regulating these CAM practitioners would put patients at risk. The counter-argument is that giving them the veneer of respectability through statutory regulation without an obligation to practice according to good evidence would generate much more harm. Patients trust the seal of approval that statutory regulation conveys. Those with serious conditions would be treated ineffectively which might cost lives.

One point to remember here is that there is no good evidence that the individualized mixtures prescribed by herbalists do any good at all. If anything, the little data that do exist suggest this approach to be useless (1).

The other important point is that we already have a telling precedent. More than 10 years ago, chiropractors were regulated by statute. Since then, their therapeutic claims have become more and more remote from scientific evidence (2). And who would argue that false claims do not put patient at risk?

As a result of all of this, the next weeks will bring more intense lobbying of the pro-regulation camp. And why not? It's a free country! Nothing worrying about people having an open debate.

What would be worrying, however, is an abuse of power. Discussing the regulation of CAM practitioners, the Evening Standard recently revealed that according to a spokesman from Clarence House, Prince Charles had a 'routine' meeting with the health secretary about these issues.

Is this alright? I thought HRH is bound by our constitution and must not influence health policy. David Colquhoun agrees and calls this behaviour 'deeply unconstitutional'. I am no constitutional lawyer but I have a hunch that he might be right.

Professor Edzard Ernst

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