Alternative medicine is back in the ring, with the publication this week of the British Medical Association’s critical report on its scientific validity. But as practitioners on both sides now line up to clash, one aspect that has received very little attention – but is having a crucial effect on the number of users of alternative medicine, is cost.
Pharmaceutical companies are often attacked for the huge profits they make from patients. But what are the costs for those who turn to alternative medicine practitioners? Currently, practitioner prices vary widely, depending on the particular treatment. Last week I found out I could have an hour with an acupuncturist for £12, with a homeopathic doctor for £18 and with an osteopath or chiropractor for £10. The hypnotherapist costs £35 per hour; the herbalist, £14.
Some practitioners charge less for subsequent visits. But the cost of their prescriptions must also be considered. A recent visit to a herbalist cost me £28, in herbal medicine. (Judging by the people who flock to Baldwin’s, south London’s century-old herbalist, those with just one ailment are skipping the hour-long treatment and asking for advice over the counter.)
This is not to say that alternative medicine practitioners exploit their patients. Having someone listen to you for an hour, check you up and prescribe treatment, for as little as £10 in some cases, seems pretty cheap compared to the equivalent cost of orthodox medicine. And people who regularly get treatment from alternative practitioners seem to think it’s worth it.
“I thought about it before trying a homeopathic doctor,” said one woman. “I didn’t want to give up my regular GP, and I didn’t, but I just had a number of issues with me: asthma, a bit of depression, a cough that never went away. faded away. And I felt like I wanted more than five minutes with my own doctor and a prescription for tranquilizers. I had a full hour with the homeopathic doctor, during which he asked every question imaginable. I don’t know exactly what he prescribed me, but it helped me a lot. It was around £17 or £18 for the first visit and around £14 for the second which was shorter. I would gladly have paid double.
As dismissive as the BMA may be, alternative medicine is gaining a following. Figures from the Research Council for Complementary Medicine show that 10% of all medical consultations are with non-medically trained practitioners and market research indicates that at least a quarter of the population has tried some form of alternative medicine. A lot of people right now can’t even afford the current reasonable prices. Would there be even more alternative patients if the price was more competitive with the NHS?
The Letchworth Center for Homeopathic and Alternative Medicine in Hertfordshire is confident the answer is yes. The center was established two years ago with the aim, according to its director, Roberta Meldrum, “of providing low-cost treatment to people who could not otherwise afford it”.
In addition to three permanent homeopathic doctors – the third has just been hired to cope with the ever-increasing number of patients – the center has an osteopath, a physiotherapist, a consultant psychologist and a teacher of the Alexander technique. It also organizes courses, workshops and conferences on health-related topics.
From a standstill, the center now has 900 patients. The need for the various treatments it dispenses is clearly considerable despite an original ignorance of alternative medicine. “We put two lines in the local paper saying ‘Help for back sufferers’, and that night alone there were 23 messages on the answering machine, before the tape ran out. Some of the callers couldn’t even pronounce the word “alternative”. And most had never heard of the Alexander Technique.
Many callers were dissatisfied with the results of their orthodox medical treatment. The center’s labor and its relative cheapness became more widely known. People came for illnesses like arthritis and asthma and told their friends about it. Membership fees are £6 for individuals and £12 for families.
“People here are very different from the type who can afford to spend £20 or £30 a visit,” says Roberta Meldrum. “We are targeting a hard core of people who have abandoned orthodox medicine and yet are not the type to be used to paying for private medicine and who have to think many times before considering paying for something that they got free all their life. Lives. And a lot of single parents come here, pensioners and others who are poor. We don’t want to raise our prices because those people would be too proud to say they can’t afford them. We don’t want to lose them. »
But losing them, the center can. Initially, he lost a few thousand pounds, but then increased as the number of patients increased. At this point, he thought he could continue to support himself by charging reasonable fees and organizing small fundraising events. But that didn’t turn out to be enough; the center now realizes that it needs a larger grant to manage. He has applied for charity status and is appealing for £10,000. But it’s hard to get the philosophy across, notes Roberta Meldrum, when talking to business people. “People say, ‘Overload a lot, or your work won’t get enough value’.”
This is an edited excerpt, continue reading