Two Worlds Collide

Why is it that complementary and conventional medicine make such uneasy bedfellows?

by Amanda Phelan, Irish Independent, Monday, November 22, 2010

A woman in her seventies recovering from cancer, an eczema sufferer who says she’s symptom-free, and a man who avoided an operation for prostate cancer.

These are just some examples of people who say they’ve used complementary health methods alongside mainstream medicine with positive results. One woman even used acupuncture as an alternative to having her gallbladder removed.

But despite demand and the growing number of holistic medical centres overseas, there are few doctors here officially using complementary techniques. And now tough new rules on registering and proving the efficacy of Chinese herbs is looming under an EU directive.

When this kicks in all Chinese herbs will have to be registered, with proof required that they work. This will have a huge impact, as these treatments are widely used in all European countries, and there are concerns the policy will only lead to black market sales.

Catriona McCormack suffered excruciating eczema through her childhood and early teens. Doctors prescribed steroid treatments, or applied cold tar packs to reduce the inflammation. None of it worked.

“My childhood was difficult and painful because of visible debilitating eczema,” says Ms McCormack, now in her thirties.

It’s hard to believe this woman, with her blooming complexion, ever had a skin complaint.


“It was a nightmare when I was a girl in my teens,” she says. “My skin was red, itchy, cracked and raw. I’d have sleepless nights because of the itchiness and the pain because the skin was so broken and sore. I’d end up with my hands in the freezer to cool my skin.”

Ms McCormack turned to yoga, and says it helped her to clear up not only her eczema, but her asthma as well.

She became such a convert that she trained as a teacher, and is now a popular instructor in the Dublin Holistic Centre.

“Yoga changes things from the inside, and that shows on the outside — it changed my life,” she says simply.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) acknowledges that therapies including acupuncture, naturopathy, homeopathy and yoga or Alexander technique are being used across Ireland, including within palliative care centres, but does not give official backing to them.

“Doctors may recommend various complementary therapies in the context of overall care of patients, but the HSE has no plans at present to develop or fund such initiatives,” says a spokeswoman.

Studies show at least half of us use some form of complementary medicine to improve health. One survey revealed over 50pc of children were being given some form of complementary medicine, such as echinacea (thought to be good for colds) for illness.

“More than half of the children surveyed had used some form of complementary or alternative medicine, usually without their pediatrician’s knowledge,” according to one report, published in the ‘Irish Journal of Medical Science’.

Yet the health authorities are still wary. The Department of Health and Children wants a more cohesive approach to govern alternative health practices. It has also run open days to encourage this mainly self-regulating billion-euro industry to come up with a set of common guidelines.

Although alternative treatments are now standard practice in many countries — like Spain, for example — the shift is not always seamless.

In England, while debate rages over government policy on complementary medicine, a homeopathic hospital in London is thriving. The Royal London Hospital of Integrated Medicine is now the largest public sector provider of integrated complementary medicine in Europe.


At home, many are convinced of its benefits, whatever the bureaucrats say.

Peter Cazalet (70), from Limerick, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001.

“I was told if I didn’t have an operation to remove the tumour, I’d be dead,” he recalls.

Mr Cazalet was reluctant to undergo surgery, and turned to acupuncture, meditation, herbs and an improved diet.

“I monitored things very carefully, and if they hadn’t changed I was ready for the operation,” he says.

Mr Cazalet credits much of his recovery to acupuncturist Karen Costin, who runs a practice in Ranelagh, Dublin.

“I go for regular check-ups, but now I’m all clear and enjoying life,” he says.

Betty Lynch (71), from Tipperary, used Ms Costin’s services to help her get through intestinal cancer.

Ms Lynch says she suffered terribly as she had an adverse reaction to the drugs and chemotherapy needed to help her recover from the cancer.

“I was in my own private hell,” she recalls. Her doctors at the Blackrock Clinic allowed Ms Costin to come into the hospital to administer acupuncture treatment.

“It was a huge help, and I still see Karen once a week, although I’m clear of the cancer,” says Ms Lynch, whose passion is leading a singing group. The choir raises money for charity, “and now I know what it is to sing for joy”.

But official attitudes are going backwards, not forwards, says Ms Costin, who practices the Five Elements, or Japanese-style, acupuncture.

“Sadly, I think we’re regressing,” she says, adding that where once she was welcome in institutions such as maternity hospitals, this professional cordiality is now rare.

“Ideally we treat in conjunction with western medicine, but there are a lot of dinosaurs out there.”