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Professor Ernst categorizes the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report on complementary and alternative medicine as ‘something for everyone’ (February 2001 JRSM, pp. 55-56); but the report perpetrates a contradictory and ill-informed assessment of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The Committee's assessment is contradictory because, while the report affirms that there is scientific evidence for acupuncture and herbal medicine, it claims there is none for TCM. Acupuncture and herbal medicine form the basis of TCM, so how can this be?
The Select Committee did not seek evidence from a professionally qualified practitioner of TCM; indeed, in some instances it chose to listen to less than reliable witnesses and as a result received misleading and inaccurate information. There is a vast amount of pharmacological and clinical research into the therapeutic properties of Chinese herbs. They contain many of the active compounds found in Western pharmacopoeias.
The first controlled clinical trial of traditional Chinese medical plants in widespread non-exudative atopic eczema took place back in 1989. It was conducted in the UK and demonstrated a credible scientific base for the clinical efficacy of TCM1,2. The evidence from this clinical trial not only proved the effectiveness of treatment, but also indicated that Chinese herbs have platelet antiaggregatory, analgesic and antipyretic properties3. Chinese herbs are also associated with immunological changes4. Furthermore, a vast number of scientific articles support TCM with evidence of efficacy based on the results of well designed trials in the USA. Many of these have been set up or endorsed by the World Health Organization.
The effectiveness of TCM in treating infertility is also creating much interest in the UK, from both patients and fertility specialists. A controlled clinical study is urgently required. Without it, bodies like the Select Committee will continue to deem TCM unscientific and therefore unprofessional. But if they believe that science is about experience and discovery, research and confirmation then it follows that every discipline should be treated fairly.
Of course, safety is of prime importance in any clinical practice. It is therefore particularly distressing to know that people without a high standard of training are being allowed to practise complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) legally. If the Lords' report really is intended to protect the health of the public, it is indeed essential that CAM becomes well regulated, with good educational standards and training. As part of the process, the committee should revise its classification of both Chinese herbal medicine and TCM without delay.